I’ll admit to being a fan of Aaron Parrett before I ever picked up his new short story collection. To be fair, though, I didn’t know much about the Dr. Aaron Parrett who is a Helena-based writer and bookmaker. The Aaron Parrett I know is the musician who, circa 1998, sported a long, ZZ-Top-style beard on the cover of an album titled “Aaron Parrett and The Sinners.”
This album came into my possession through a series of events I can no longer recall. I don’t remember who released it, but it was not a major label creation. I gave it a listen, then another, and it quickly became part of my regular rotation. To this day I know almost every word on that record. It’s a tight and inspired creation from beginning to end.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover Parrett’s first short story collection, Maple & Lead, is crafted and curated with the same kind of expertise. Except I am, surprised, that is. How often does a single person become a skilled musician, songwriter and short story writer?
Parrett is not only those things. He is also the author of several books of nonfiction rooted in Montana history. He runs Territorial Press, to boot, the press that produced Maple & Lead. What you’re thinking might be what I was thinking when I first came across Aaron Parrett’s album: What is this? Something self-published? Homemade?
Yes. And no. All of the stories in Maple & Lead first appeared in quality literary journals. Here’s the thing: The publishing world in general is not searching for the next great poetry or short story collection because they don’t tend to be revenue-makers. Many stellar writers have to find a creative path to getting their work in print, as Parrett did. The book is independent art at its best, made in collaboration with Helena artist Seth Roby, whose prints appear throughout, elegantly illustrating the central images.
I have a habit of reading books with a pencil in hard to mark the passages that appeal to me. Flipping back through Maple & Lead, I notice that I marked every opening line. I challenge you to pick up a copy in the bookstore and read the first sentence of each short story. I would include them all here, but this review would then be nothing but a hodge-podge of opening lines I wish I would have written myself.
The story “Thirteen Things I Have Sold on eBay,” for example, opens with, “1. Uncle Frankie’s appendix.” The story does not disappoint as it chronicles the narrator’s increasingly absurd list of items sold on eBay until, in the end, his house goes up for auction and we’re left with the observation that, “life often outbids us.” Yes, it does. This story is a prime example of how Parrett can make you laugh and punch you in the gut at the same time.
Parrett’s voice is playful, philosophical and (often when you least expect it), poignant. The collection begins with “Side of the Road,” an earnest and heartbreaking tale of a father and son. The story has a reflective quality that brings to mind the poetry of Theodore Roethke or William Stafford.
The most common type of story in this collection, however, involves a narrator whose name changes while his voice remains the same. He is a man down on his luck in love and tying knots in his life faster than he can unravel them. These love-gone-wrong stories have a Charles Bukowski or Jim Harrison quality to them. The voice is the engine of the book, and entirely Parrett’s own.
In these pages, you’ll find two 20-something wanderers, hunting for psychedelic mushrooms while traveling from Missoula to Wallace to Seattle and back. You’ll see familiar landmarks, like the Atlantic Hotel, Jay’s, Charlie B’s and Al’s and Vic’s. You’ll witness a disturbing game of chess, read about peculiar items picked up by highway maintenance, not to mention the many other things sold on eBay.
The final sum of all these parts—the Montana-made book, the voice like that of a wise man whispering in your ear at the bar before sundown and the vagabond nature of stories rooted firmly in our neck of the West—is something worth reading and rereading. It is a collection that is to Montana what Dubliners was to James Joyce’s Ireland 100 years ago. This is a collection rooted in place, and place shapes these characters who struggle, like many of us, to get by here.
Parrett’s stories aren’t old-fashioned. They’re classic. They weren’t whittled into the latest literary shapes by an MFA workshop or the marketing department at a New York City publishing house. They’re pure story, told without pretense, for readers like you. Us.
This week, you can hear some of Maple & Lead read out loud. You might learn a thing or two about the making of an illustrated, letterpress book as well. If you’re really lucky, Dr. Parrett might even bring his fiddle.
Aaron Parrett reads from Maple & Lead at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., Nov. 8, at 7 PM.