McSweeney's has been running a series of dispatches these last four months written by Patrick Madden as he bums around Uruguay. So far, Pat's posted five. They range from travelogue to rumination to lyrical essay. Content varies from hauling six kids through airports domestic and foreign--on the surface, a horror story that would write itself--to machine parts, futbol, public transportation systems, the band No Te Va Gustar (an "innovative mix of rock and ska with a touch of Uruguayan murga," according to Madden), and buried memory. All five have merit: they are small in stature but big-hearted. I came away from each feeling--dare I be sentimental--that our world is good and kind, and that the webs of our experience intertwine and influence.
I'll let you peruse the five on your own. They're each worth a glance. The essay that drew me in most--whether my sporting interest is piqued because I'm currently entering the playoff stage of my Fantasy Football league (name: Imaginary Football) as the #2 seed; or because I spent last weekend watching the College Football bowl matchups come to light (will be attending the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to root for Toledo, a college I've never been to in a state I've never visited because, if I'm inherently against anything, it's Utah (coincidently, last year I bought Ohio University gear [Madden's alma mater] and Ohio rallied to win 24-23 vs Utah State); or because I have a collection of miscellaneous repair parts, including ball bearings, dating back to 1989--was "In Which We Consider the Glorious History of Uruguayan Soccer, and Ball Bearings."
"IWWCtGHoUS,aBB" does everything that I appreciate in essays. It takes me to an unknown place, teaches me things--facts, history--I did not know, surprises me in language and plot, and, in the end, makes me wonder. In this case, I'm dropped in next to Madden at the Uruguay-Ecuador World Cup qualifier. From the onset, Madden's attention--curious as ever--is not focused on the game, but on an ad blaring over the loudspeakers for rulemanes, ball bearings, and he thinks, "WTF(lip) [Madden teaches at BYU, btw], ball bearings? At a soccer match?" And, even stranger, the crowd sings along to the company's jingle! A phenomenon, sure, when I consider my local awkward Chevy dealer preach, "If you don't want it, you don't keep it!" intoned by a stadium full of sports nuts.
The essay then moves expectedly (and not in a bad way; it's satisfying and intriguing) to Uruguay's soccer history. Madden, always interested in numbers and percentages (check out his essay collection Quotidiana for some deep explorations of mathematics and the band Rush), shows the improbability that Uruguayans, population-wise, shouldn't be as good at soccer as they really are. It's fascinating and unfolds over 12 paragraphs.
And then comes the 13th, which is the wonderful surprise of the essay. Madden, nonchalantly, wanders to headquarters of Larrique Rulemanes, sits down with the owners, and asks them why they would take out ad time for ball bearings during a high profile soccer match. In the prose, he's given no warning of this action. He does not spend time describing the faces of the Larrique brothers or what they're wearing. He just arrives, investigates, and reports. It's this authorial curiosity that keeps me engaged.
Satiated, Madden then moves from the concrete of the essay to the abstract, and speaks to ideas rather than events. Here's the second-to-last paragraph:
Which is more than we can say for the essayist, who by habit lifts up the hood and begins tinkering without an instruction manual. But the experience of writing of fútbol and rulemanes has given me at least this: that as much as essays are an act of self-effacement, they are also, necessarily, a declaration of ego, an action on the belief that the world might care enough to read my doings and thinkings. Montaigne’s assertion that “each person bears the entire form of the human condition” has guided my reading and writing and thinking for decades, but not only my essaying, my living, too, and not only mine, but most everybody’s. We think through the misaligned machinery of a limited first-person perspective, supposing that our own motivations are unanimous, or should be, and judging others based on the rationales we can muster for their visible actions.
“Even among those who most pride themselves on their knowledge of mankind, each of them knows scarcely anything apart from himself.”— Rousseau, from The Confessions
It is weird and wonderful to begin reading about soccer and wheel bearings and end up musing about the finite first-person? Yes, and I like it. But is it any weirder than an Idaho farmkid now knowing--and probably never being able to forget--the jingle to an auto parts store some 6,593 miles away? Not at all, and I like that too.
Joshua Foster writes about and lives in southeastern Idaho where he works on his father's potato and grain farm. He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction writing at Stanford University and has earned MFA's (nonfiction, fiction) from University of Arizona. He serves as Terrain.org's nonfiction editor. His stories and essays have appeared online and in print.