“The Paper Life They Lead” by Patrick Crerand

Happy Monday, Story366! Thus ends a really wonderful weekend, one that saw three straight days of mid-seventies, slightly breezy weather, which led to three good walks with the boys in the woods and some good work done around the yard. I also found out I can follow the directions for installing a new screen door handle. Ours was toast and for about two months, the screen door out front had been blowing in the wind and banging against the frame, back and forth. Yet, the eleven-dollar kit I bought at Home Depot—I spared no expense—posed some challenges. The series of nine simple drawings—without any words—perhaps wasn’t quite as clear as the technical writer thought it was, and what seemed like a pretty easy job turned into me and the boys out on the porch for quite some time, them holding flashlights and screws while I swore a lot. Still, we prevailed: We now have a working door in front of the house. I explained to the boys that this door handle kit was like Legos for adults, and like regular, kid-targeted Legos, sometimes swear words are necessary to make the pieces fit together—sort of like magic words. Alakazam! and Abracadrabra! (i.e., “Goddamn it!” and “Die you cheap motherfucking piece of shit!”) I’m so handy.

Two weeks left in the semester and I’m on autopilot now for a week or two, between the workshops and thesis readings of mid-semester and all the final grading I’ll need to do after next week. I’m excited to be reading new stories and new books now, and today’s selection, The Paper Life They Lead by Patrick Crerand, out just last week from Arc Pair Press (their debut as well). Pat is a longtime friend of mine, having gone through Bowling Green’s MFA a few years after I did, when I was editing Mid-American Review and teaching seven thousand comp students a semester. In 2012, I stayed at Pat’s house when he invited me to read at St. Leo University back when Chicago Stories came out. Most importantly, Pat’s been a member of my BG fantasy baseball league since 2003, which bonds two people more than love, war, or literature combined.

I was happy to dive right into The Paper Life They Lead as soon as I could, and yesterday afternoon, I sat in my office and read the entire book. To be to clear, the book is only fifty-four pages long, with some pretty big type, so I’d call this more of a chapbook of fiction, I guess, but it’s really quite the chapbook. There are certainly highlights among the seven stories published in this short collection, including the lead piece, “PIT-DAY,” set aboard a commercial airliner, the pilot announcing to the passengers that he’s going to fly the plane up into space. The second piece, “The Glory of Keys,” is really fun, about this Pontiac Sunfire, sent to school in place of a tired high school kid, that becomes a star football player and valedictorian and … well, a car takes over a kid’s life and rises to glory—it’s a car. The back end of the collection is more a smattering of shorts, all effective in their own way, if not as concept-heavy as the first half of the book.

The third and title piece, “The Paper Life They Lead” is Crerand’s strongest story, beautifully conceived and written. It’s about a family who lives on a farm, the farm being the drawing of a farm on the mostly white packaging of Pepperidge Farm products. Being the consumer that I am—I’m a sucker for Milanos—I could kind of picture this farm as I read. Still, when it was apparent how important this farm image was to understanding the story, I’m jumped onto Google to get an exact shot, which is this:

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This image more or less matches up to what’s described in the story, as the mill plays a large role, and the fact that it’s winter is also important. There’s mention of a silo throughout the story, and in my mind, I’d imagined a silo in the logo, but no, no silo. In any case, this is the farmhouse the story refers to, is centered around, and on every package of Pepperidge Farm goods, it’s positioned somewhere between the company name and on top of a picture of the food product in the middle.

So, now you’re caught up. Crerand had a lot of possible ins to this story, the story of the people who live in this little farmhouse and how they relate to the Pepperidge Farm cookie empire. The easy in would have been to go with the guy from the commercials, the old-timer who used his old-timey voice and demeanor to describe delicious treats, ending each ad with his tagline, “Because Pepperidge Farm remembers!” This guy:

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I’ve never been 100 percent sure exactly what Pepperidge Farm remembers, what that has to do with cookies, if we’re supposed to think that the company’s fancier-than-usual cookies come from the era of string ties, straw hats, and giant phonograph speakers, an era long forgotten by those punks over at Keebler and Nabisco.

But Crerand doesn’t go there. Instead, in “The Paper Life They Lead,” he invents a surreal family who lives at that farmhouse, letting them loose upon the limited landscape. There’s a mom, a dad, and a son, and they seem to function on the farm, but within the limits of a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies—not that they know they’re on package (Crerand could have gone there, too), but rather, there’s a limit to their landscape and everything is white. The family exists in some Depression-era nightmare version of a farm, the work constant and grueling, the chores starting before sun up and extending until late at night, when everyone more or less collapses from exhaustion. It’s an intense existence that Crerand portrays, so much so, the dad has his son sleep in the barn, live in the barn, so he can keep watch over the animals—the kid even has to work while he’s asleep! The mom, who seems to bake all day while the men work the land, tries to ease her son’s life by sneaking him cookies, which the dad doesn’t approve of, as cookies are too sweet and they make you soft.

So, that’s the basic setup of “The Paper Life They Lead.” The title comes from something the dad repeats to the mom and the son, what he says whenever they dream of life off of the farm, start imagining an existence that doesn’t involve baking and jarring cookies or grinding flour, raising dairy cattle, and all the other tasks necessary for cookie farming. The dad keeps everyone on task, but unfortunately, the son dreams of life off the farm, what happens outside the confines of a package, beyond the barriers. He dreams of some Edenesque land, filled with free-roaming beasts, while the dad insists that there are no beasts beyond the edge, just a void. The son best keep up with his chores, lest he … well, what do you threaten a kid with when he already lives in the barn and slaves all day, farming cookie-making supplies?

“The Paper Life They Lead” isn’t a terribly long story, and I’ve already given away the set up as well as most of the plot. Further complications push the envelope between the father’s stubbornness and his son’s curiosity, and really, that’s what this story is about, the old guard working to prevent the future, keeping things they way they’ve always been; the dad’s simply ensuring that traditions will carry on, even past his time on this earth (or package). It almost makes me think that old man from the old commercials is the dad, or maybe the son, that somewhere along the way, the family saw their fortunes turn, went corporate, and exploded, and the mom’s delectable recipes making them rich; some marketing VP, inspired by the cranky old founder, used the dad’s (or son’s) image—or maybe even the man himself—to bring that sense of tradition to the company. Why not? One competitor uses elves in a tree, and the other uses … whatever Nabisco uses (i.e., Oreos, aka, legal crack) to sell its products.

I admire the ingenuity in “The Paper Life They Lead,” how Crerand was inspired by something so oddly inspiring and made so much out of it. It’s a wacky idea, sure, but it’s Crerand’s execution that really makes his story work. The description of the daily labor, the stark landscape, and the general hopelessness of these characters’ existence is straight out of Steinbeck, the bleakness so vivid, those cookies jarred in the farmhouse cellar are long-forgotten—and I really like cookies. Crerand’s choices become the real art here, his ability to make them work so convincingly. A story with a premise like this could be merely a joke in the wrong hands, but Crerand’s commitment steers him clear of all that, into much better territory, much more effective fiction.

I like the stories in The Paper Life They Lead, especially this title story and “The Glory of Keys,” one of a few stories Crerand has placed in McSweeney’s. That seems to be Crerand’s aesthetic, or one of them, anyway, the type of well executed, clever hipsterism often found in Dave Eggers’ quarterly concern. As a somewhat clever hipster myself, I mean that as a compliment, Crerand’s voice fresh and fun, his post-Post-Modern ideas as revelatory of our human conditions as any sort of realism. The Paper Life They Lead is a solid but short debut—I’m eager what else this author has up his sleeve.

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