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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: Pot Farm by Matthew Gavin Frank

Pot Farm by Matthew Gavin Frank
University of Nebraska, 2012
Reactive Nonfaction (my personal term for a mix of novel, memoir, and reporting)
Review by Debrah Lechner

Congratulations to Matthew Gavin Frank on the sublime achievement of transcending the putative dichotomy of fiction and fact in the oh-so-readable book Pot Farm.

At the beginning of the book Frank declares himself an unreliable narrator. This isn’t new: some sort of caveat of this sort is almost a requirement in the present literary environment, where there is a thirst for memoir and memoir-inspired narrative, but after consuming the book, readers sometimes make a second meal of the author, developing a voracious appetite for “facts.”

This issue is becoming boring, but I felt the need to address it anyway. I read the blurbs on the back and the information that came with the book, and nowhere was it categorized as fiction, nonfiction, or anything else. I scrutinized the Library of Congress information, and there was no such label there, either: good!

Here are the subjects the Library of Congress describe as covered in Pot Farm, and it’s a pretty fair assessment:

1.     Marijuana industry―California.
2.     Marijuana―Therapeutic use.
3.     Cannabis.
4.     Frank, Matthew Gavin.
5.     Agricultural laborers―California―Anecdotes.

What makes the book such a good read are as follows:

1.     Meticulously researched detail―Medical marijuana farming.
2.     Characterization of an assortment of “marginal” characters―Bright and compelling.
3.     Cancer, mental illness and death―Deep compassion without condescension.
4.     Romance―Happy relationship―Strong female character―A treat to read.
5.     Humor―Often directed at the “unreliable narrator”―Funny. Witty. Insightful.
6.     Lyricism―Effective use.

A few notes:

Detail. The pot farm details are handled in such a way that the setting of the farm completely envelopes you, taking you to an entirely different world. The reader emerges knowing much more about this subject, and most importantly, comes back refreshed and smiling. This is one of the great pleasures of reading.

Illness. Frank himself mentions that it’s difficult to write about our mortal fragility without becoming maudlin. He doesn’t want this book to be that. It isn’t, but cancer and other illnesses is the reason behind the existence of the farm, and the reason that the narrator and his wife are compelled to flee into this new life. The people that suffer in Pot Farm are treated with respect, tenderness, and the awareness that all of us must face this kind of suffering some day.

Romance. I did not take for granted that any character existed . Of all the characters in Pot Farm, Johanna, the narrator’s wife, is probably the least necessary, at least in terms of “plot,” but of all the characters I want to be real, Johanna is my favorite. She is witty, outspoken, and unafraid. Frank had the rare luxury of describing a loving, committed couple without the need for tension, because the rest of the story supplies that. Dare I say “heart-warming?”

Lyricism. Frank, author of Warranty in Zulu, among other poetry publications, makes excellent use of his lyrical ability in Pot Farm, reining most of it in until near the end of the book, where he devotes a few pages to a dream, and the reader is invested in the characters, ready for it, ready to be moved.

Finally, let me close by quoting some passages:

. . . As  a  result . . . Lady Wanda has been employing snipers at Weckman Farm since 1997.  (I must pat myself on the back for meticulously wording my questions to her so as to not appear like an interviewer, though this self-congratulation, upon examination, is for nothing more than my ability to deceive a trusting person. Now I feel bad about myself, and revoke said pat.)

Did I have sex with my wife on the cool hood of that Kia, in that isolated parking lot? Yes. Yes. Yes I did. And it was everything I hoped sex with my wife and a Kia hood would be―hot and metal and revved-up and transmittive and explosive and gear-shifting and gas guzzling and accelerating and alternating and . . . Yes. I know. That’s enough.

            Johanna tells me she wishes that, from the beginning, she’d told everyone here that she has a different name.
`                        “But it’s too late now,” she says, “to be someone else entirely.”
“We could always tell them that Johanna is not your real name. That way your real self could be the fiction.”
She takes my hand.
“It’s something to consider,” she says.

The animals raise their heads in unison. You may be picturing deer, horse, and buffalo now. Isn’t that sort of fun? The early sun yellow their short hair. Obviously unthreatened, they saunter toward the rear of the fields, disappearing into the trees, their bellies full of pot leaves. Surely their day will be spent in blissful, tie-dyed herbivorism.

And at the end:

            I put my hand on Johanna’s thigh, and through the windshield, the insects sacrificed to our speed, I feel some sort of lifetime stretch out before us. In its infinity, its road-acoustics, and sweet nighttime desert smells, I feel strong and stupid, confused, broken with love, and, as long as I keep driving, finally reliable.

So. Go read Pot Farm.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press). Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream. His poem, "Still Lives Without Stingers" will appear in HFR's forthcoming 50th issue.

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