A Gould Mine of Maine Yarns

FUNNY ABOUT THAT. By John Gould, W. W. Norton, 183 pp., $17.95

THROW professional objectivity out the window in this review. I know John Gould. Fact is I spent a night in his Maine home several years ago, he and I sitting in his cozy basement parlor threading the needle about life, love, writing, and how he assembles a Gouldian community of stories. He talked. I listened and poked a question at him now and then between our laughter.

He once sent me a blue potato in the mail to prove the existence of blue potatoes. Now, in this his 26th book, "Funny About That," and after writing essays for this newspaper for more than 40 years, Gould continues his amazing profluency.

In short bursts of easy writing, Gould creates an unmistakable sense of place, morality, and Maine charm. All this is wrapped in his masterly skill of finding and playing the rhythms in the English language.

Here's a Gould take on a small-town doctor: "A real civis mundis, he was spare, lean, distingue with a small goatee, and living proof that true gentlemen never specialize. He was 'rounded.' He could expound on the technique of Praxiteles or defend the philosophies of Rousseau with equal zeal, or turn to show you how to graft a plum tree. In town meeting he would debate a sewer appropriation so it sounded like Cicero in the Forum, and he was a Henry George 'single-taxer' Democrat."

Here is a writer of delightful equanimity and intelligence. He loves the joshing and spinning, and dares not offend with sex, violence, or any villains but the most puffed-up rascals who gain an edge and then lose it.

In the tradition of the droll storyteller, Gould's essays (or are they stories?) add up to a community less sharply focused than Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, but equally as human and imperfect.

But where Keillor describes a town, its people, and the underlying sadness of the human condition, Gould shapes a boardinghouse community of rural ideas, facts, people, laughter, and the byplay of the past and present. It's oral history, too, and shaggy dog stories about food and words. Gould adds the safety pin of mortal foolishness to keep it all from becoming exposition when he knows he's just telling stories.

In a story that starts with Gould commenting on a newspaper gaff stating that a fire department "distinguished a fire," Gould goes on to tell about Abbie Duncan's roof catching on fire while she is baking three pies and a marble cake in her Modern Clarion stove. Firemen arrive to put out the fire but scramble to save the pies and cake by carrying the stove out of the house.

He writes, "When Abbie opened the oven door the pies were just at their peak, and the cake hadn't fallen, as cakes will do if they get abused. Everything just done to perfection for the customary lunch after a fire."

But try as they may, the firemen can't get the stove back in the house. They measure, they figure, but the stove has to be carried in piece by piece. Gould concludes that here was a truly "distinguished fire."

People in Gould's boarding house aren't yuppie consumers. They don't crave the latest of anything. None has ever stood in Times Square and said "I want this." They don't want to taste the elixir of California or eat Key lime pie forever in Florida. They like Maine. They save empty boxes and wooden spoons. They like snow as snow. They like old gloves, the smell of kerosene. They know salt cod made the nation great. They like old, smelly dogs. And they know blue potatoes are not imaginary.

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