By Jill Witty
photography by William C. Crawford
In the title essay of Rick Bailey’s third collection, Get Thee to a Bakery: Essays, the author finds himself balancing delicately atop a ladder, clad in flip-flops, while stretching to rid his house’s gutters of their autumnal clog. He imagines falling and thinks, briefly, that dying in the arms of bushes might be the exact right way to succumb. He then pictures the pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia by Millais, in which her drowned body lies in a brook, framed by greenery. He decides, on second thought, he might prefer to die by falling into a pumpkin pie, surrounded by its heavenly perfume.
The title of the collection, a riff on Hamlet’s command to Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery!” coyly echoes and amplifies the literary reference contained in the essay. By connecting Hamlet’s madness with the author’s partiality for Costco pumpkin pies, Bailey winks at his audience, inviting the reader to share in the joke. The Hamlet reference indicates that the author, a former professor of writing, knows not to take himself too seriously.
Savvy readers will approach these essays with a sense of humor and inquisitiveness. Wondering how eating cold hot dogs might relate to attaining citizenship in San Marino? Bailey has your answer. What about the association between the author’s inability to grow a satisfyingly robust beard, and his love for the perfect peach? As it turns out, the vendor of those perfect peaches boasts a beautiful beard, and while we’re at it, so does Jesus, providing another turn in the essay. Bailey does not shy away from exploring non-obvious linkages; indeed, creating unpredictable connections is a feature, even a hallmark, of his essays—to great comic effect.
Imagine an older, less sullen Holden Caulfield, observing the world around him with mild, avuncular snark coupled with bountiful amusement, and you’ll capture the flavor of these pieces. In three- to seven-minute morsels, Bailey offers his observations about, among other things, the earworm quality of Andrea Bocelli’s most famous song, the right hat to wear to national parks, and the futility of counting one’s steps.
Like any kind uncle, Bailey has certain favorite topics to which he returns frequently: traveling in Italy (as well as Florida, the American West, and China); eating (especially while traveling); language (especially Italian and English, with a sprinkling of Chinese thrown in toward the end); and aging (the age-related groans, the fear of falling, the impaired hearing and weakened teeth). While no single essay focuses on his marriage, his relationship with his wife provides the backdrop to the majority of these pieces. Bailey’s wife, originally from San Marino, serves as his straight man, his sparring partner, his moral compass, and his judge. Frequently she can be found, book in hand, by his side. They don’t always hear each other well, either because one or the other is engrossed in a book, or because Bailey needs a hearing aid (see: aging), but their modes of accommodating and even enjoying each other provide additional moments of levity and tenderness.
Some of the funniest essays take place in dilemmas of Bailey’s own making. In “Drop It,” Bailey gets fed up with finding dog poop in his yard. His course of action? Buying a five-gallon container of poop with which to take revenge. When the perpetrator turns out to be an impressionable and embarrassed foreigner, Bailey’s planned act of revenge takes on a new, sinister undertone that even he can’t stomach.
In “Teeth First,” Bailey agrees to teach a sixteen-year-old to drive a stick shift before selling his old Dodge to the kid’s mother. Predictably, the lesson goes poorly, and the sixteen-year-old is every bit the bad actor that we expect, hoping to buy a manual-transmission car “to burn rubber… to do something those assholes at school can’t.” Less predictably, and to great comic effect, Bailey finds compassion for the misunderstood miscreant, choosing not to sell him the car in order to save the mother-son relationship.
Bailey’s tone of sweet bemusement, even at life’s minor inconveniences, helps these pieces go down like scoops of creamy Italian gelato. He refuses to be trampled by his lack of fluency in Italian (the native language of his wife and his in-laws); instead, he sees his progress in learning the language as an opportunity to read “lady books,” with predictable plots and basic vocabulary, that perhaps he’d be embarrassed to read in English. Similarly, when he realizes he’s forgotten his swimsuit on a trip to Florida, he happily takes a dip in his skivvies. What stays with the reader is not the novelty of his solution, but his delight at having discovered it.
In this era of near-forbidden international travel, Bailey’s frequent trips to Italy and China (home to one of his children) are a welcome source of envy or, perhaps, recognition. Befuddlement at the way the Italian bank doors trap an innocent person in an ante-chamber, seemingly unable to move either forward or backward, rings familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves in a place of different customs. When Bailey tries “yakgurt,” a yogurt dessert made from yak’s milk, the reader is transported to a world only currently available to us through pithy, true-tale anecdotes such as his.
The book’s title centers on his love for food, bringing to my mind the obvious connection between cooking and writing. Here, Bailey is an enthusiastic chef at a family-run trattoria, a lover of food who has enough experience in the kitchen to know which ingredients work well together, and in what proportion, following a recipe he has honed over the years. We readers will taste his pasta, deem it delicious, compliment the chef, and perhaps, even, ask for seconds.
by Rick Bailey
University of Nebraska Press $19.95
Jill Witty is a Richmond native who currently resides in Florence, Italy, with her husband, three children, and rescue dog. She is querying her first novel and plotting her second. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Catapult, Atlas & Alice, Defenestration, and Reflex, among others. Find her online at jillwitty.com or connect with her on Twitter @jwitty.