Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...) Jody Procter

Jody Procter went to a fine university, migrated to San Francisco in a VW bus, became a hippie, spent his entire life writing while pursuing other work for money, and ended up as a carpenter. A lot like me. Toil: Building Yourself is Jody's meditative diary of one of the last jobs of his career, one rainy winter working as a carpenter building a McMansion in the Pacific Northwest.

As the newest hire on the crew, Jody was low man in the pecking order. He provides a detailed, graphic account of construction as viewed from the bottom. A bit too detailed at times. What I like best is when he steps slightly outside the job and considers the larger implications of what he's doing:

"Someday this house will be done, and we and all our voices and our inane chatter and our grim faces will be the ghosts of the workmen who built it, and whoever lives in it will know us only by the strange, unsettled sensations of movement and thought they pick up sometimes... We will have moved on somewhere else with our yearning laughter, our muddy boots, our hammers with their odd nicknames, our ladders, our wet nail-belts and tired feet, our fear of fuck-ups and death. And the house will be like our mountain and it will remain."

I like it when he tells us not what he's doing so much as how he feels about it: "When I'm at work, I like to work, to get into the rhythm of it, the perfection of it, the uninterrupted flow of it - on a really good day, the mystical, mantra-sounding, deep spirituality of it." This is a guy who recites his mantra while he's nailing studs.

We begin in November, 1994 with an empty lot, the first scrapings of the bulldozer blade "curling up rich, brown chunks of river-bottom dirt," and follow the work through the bickering and joking, the competition and the camaraderie. We meet Vern, the nearly unflappable contractor with a laconic Gary Cooper personality attached to a Don Knotts body. We meet Brian, the brash 19-year-old whose energy outpaces his skill set, who has a motor mouth, who thinks Rush Limbaugh is God and who, naturally, irritates the crap out of old hippie Jody. We meet Bud, whose one-year-old daughter is on chemotherapy and whose life is on the edge. We care about this crew, we watch them practice their craft, we understand how working on a construction site can be like immersing yourself in a nearly dysfunctional family.

Most of all we come to know - and worry about - Jody Procter, a man who, as the subtitle says, is building himself. Despite the humorous image on the cover, this man is haunted by some dark ghosts. First there are the aches and pains of a 51-year-old carpenter, such as on this occasion after spending a day on the roof in the pouring rain, a day of wondering whether it would be better, on sliding off the slick roof, to land dead on his head or to land on his back and be a paraplegic:

"About 8:00, I'm lying there on the couch, Kathleen has gone in to take a bath, and suddenly both my legs seize up in violent cramps, cramps in both upper thighs that turn my legs into these wicked, painful knots of constricted muscle.... The pain is almost unendurable, and I call out for Kathleen, who emerges naked and dripping wet from the bathroom to find me thrashing around on the floor, my legs out straight, eyes closed, jaw clenched; she pounds on my legs, tries to loosen them." The cure, it turns out, is a warm glass of salt water. "When I drink this, the cramps go away almost immediately. The floor of the living room is a chaos of plates, books, and magazines from where I have been thrashing around between the coffee table and the couch. Everything is wet from where Kathleen, ministering to me, has left water tracks from her interrupted bath. But I am all better. I stand up. I laugh. We both laugh about it.... I am in bed and asleep by 9:30."

But as a reader, I was less troubled by Jody's physical problems - which, as a 61-year-old carpenter, I am fairly acquainted with - and more concerned with his mental well-being. Jody grew up with wealth and privilege: "My father was a Republican businessman, a Harvard-club man, and a golfer ... whose only tools were the weeder and the trowel for the garden.... The work, such as it was, that was done to our house, was done by rough-looking working men, plumbers and carpenters and electricians who came to the house in their old trucks, and seemed to me as alien as if they had just arrived from Outer Mongolia. Now I had become one of them." And later he says, "I wonder, out of my graduating class, if I am now working at the most menial job. Would there be some sort of reverse accomplishment in lowliness?"

I hate that attitude. Having spent my own life in the construction trades, I've never seen myself as a failure. Yes, I was a National Merit Scholar. Yes, I went to a fine university. But no, it is not failure to spend your life working with your hands - hands that are attached to an active and engaged mind. It is the work of my hands that has sharpened my mind and kept it in focus, reality-based, unlike the weird and useless abstractions of some writers who spend their lives in the academic world sucking on - and simultaneously hating - the university teat.

Most of the carpenters I know take pride in their work and in their livelihood. Only in literature, it seems, do we see ourselves as troubled, exploited, miserable laboring wretches. There's a strain of that attitude in the poems of Mark Turpin and Joseph Millar, too, and I suppose we can all be forgiven a bit of self-pitying. We have all been through some form of 12-step - it seems to be a job requirement. With Turpin and Millar, fortunately, there are equal expressions of pleasure, of taking joy in the work itself.

I'm not sure whether Jody Procter ever reconciled with himself. The story ends on a fairly positive note as he moves on to carpentry jobs that seem to give him more satisfaction. Then he died of lung cancer 3 years after the diary was completed. In an afterword, Catherine Silbert writes:

"If that God of his meant for him to learn humility or kindness or compassion, Jody learned it. The toil of manual work, the toil of creativity, the toil of living, and finally the daunting toil of dying was in the end done with a monk's perseverance and devotion, with stunning humor, and with love."

You'll come away from this book with a sense of that humility, kindness, compassion. You'll remember the humor and the love. And you may have a renewed appreciation of the depth of the word: Toil.

A sidenote: The book was unavailable for a long time. I originally read a library copy. When I recently purchased my own, it was hard to find a used copy and I had to pay a premium. Now, suddenly, it has reappeared on Amazon and is easy to buy. Compared to my own Clear Heart, we treat parallel subjects with slightly different perspectives. We even, I was stunned to discover, discuss such minutia as the use of hair - various colors and locations of hair - as units of measurement with a red pussy hair being the finest unit. Sorry, folks, but the language of carpenters, it seems, is fairly standardized and totally sexist, at least on the West Coast.


  1. I too am a carpenter, and when I saw the units of measurement it put a big smile on my face.

    P.S. I'm on the east coast, so I think it's a coast to coast standard.

  2. Oh, good to know.

    I wonder if Europe has a metric equivalent?

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