Book Review 04: An Obsession in Soil

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.

“…Every Brandywine tomato we picked this year literally cost us sixty-four dollars to grow.”

Now I had her attention. She put the journal down and stared at me for what seemed an eternity.

“And just how do you know that?” she finally inquired hesitantly, not sure she really wanted to know.

I laid the spreadsheet in front of her. She studied it for a minute.

“We spent all this on the garden?”

“Maybe more. I’m sure I forgot some things.”

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William Alexander’s book “The $64 Tomato” is the story of one man’s battle against nature to, coral it and turn the Old Brown house into his wife’s dream home and his ideal garden.

And he gets his garden. Perhaps not the perfect one. Perhaps not exactly the one he said he wanted. But he developed a wonderful, lush garden that eventually turned into a miniature farm. At the end of the book he seems to come to an understanding about his acreage.

Sitting in the garden, staring out at these rows, I realized that, in the way we get the leaders we deserve, in the way that dogs often resemble their owners, I guess in the end we get the gardens we deserve. The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said it another way: each of us gets the war we deserve. I wanted a garden that was sloppy, rambling, surprising, spontaneous. But I had to face it: as much as I hate to admit it, I am khaki, deliberate, and straight forward. Maybe that’s what Bridget saw in me, and that’s the garden she designed for me.

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The non-fiction book is a collection of short stories. Each chapter stands on its own and tells several tales. Alexander jumps around in time and tells stories of his upbringing, his family, and his current life, all framed in the context of the garden. His story telling style is engaging, if a bit forced at times.

His chapters often follow the structure of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon”.

  • Here’s where we are today.
  • Here’s how we got hear.
  • That’s like what happening ion the past.
  • Here is that story.
  • Now we’re back to today.

And the story wraps up nicely.

He takes a self deprecating approach to his stories. He accepts responsibility for all the mistakes he makes. In his garden, he set lofty goals and gradually adjusted them to fit the real world. For example, in the beginning he wants to be pesticide-free and organic, but gradually adds more natural and, ultimately, chemical tools to his arsenal. In the process, he has a moment of self discovery as he finally began to understand the perfect gardens and crops his father used to grow.

He digs deeply into his failures for entertainment value.

Through the summer, my little apple swelled and showed hints of red inside its protective sheath as my family waited in anticipation of the crisp fall day when, dressed in our L. L. Bean red-checked flannels, we would descend into the orchard and with great ceremony pluck the literal (and only) fruit of our labors.

But before that day could arrive, on a sweltering mid-August afternoon, I bumped the tree slightly with the lawn mower, and the young apple, bag and all, plopped unceremoniously to the ground in a muffled thud. From Gregor Mendel to Homer Simpson. I sheepishly brought it inside to face the silent stares of my inquisitors. “Must be ripe. Popped right off,” I said cheerfully. We sliced it into quarters and ate it on the spot. It was the best apple I have ever tasted, if a bit tart. And hard.

Page 87

He also has a nice appreciation for dark humor. He takes particular joy in telling stories of his electric fence.

An electric fence is usually used to keep livestock in, but it can also be effective at keeping wildlife out. The high-quality models originate from either New Zealand (developed for the huge sheep-farming industry) or Germany (don’t ask).

Page 99

Reasonable people may wonder why I had a 6,000 volt electric fence around my orchard.

Page 102

Don’t worry. Alexander’s electric fence was part of his ongoing war of attrition with deer, ground hogs, rabbits, squirrels and other assorted interlopers who seemed to feel the outdoors and everything in it belonged to them.

There are times, however, that the tone gets in the way of the story. I’ve struggled to describe this over the past couple of weeks, and I still don’t have quite the right words. But for lack of a better term, there is an adolescent cockiness to much of his writing. Often it’s enjoyable, but it comes across as condescending at times.

Alexander enjoys being the expert. He exalts in sharing his new found wisdom and knowledge with the reader.

In any event, Johnny A. [Appleseed] made enough money buying land and selling Appleseed – that’s right, selling, not giving away, seeds – to become a moderately wealthy man (not that this eccentric every spent any of it).

Page 82

At times the writing comes across not as friendly chatter, but as a smug lecture. Of course I’m often accused of the same thing from time to time, so I suppose that’s why it bothers me to see it, and why I still relate to Alexander.

He also forces sexuality into the discussion. Of course I can see the connection. Ancient farming rituals and fertility rituals were often tied together. Talking about the birth and growth of a garden naturally ties into matters of birth and sexuality. Alexander, however, calls it out in a way that comes across as, “Look at me! I’m writing about sex and gardening at once.” It’s in the way he approaches it. For example, the chapter titles include “Whore in the Bedroom, Horticulturist in the Garden” and “Statuary Rape”. It’s a little over the top and a bit forced.

The book comes across sometimes as an attempt the change the world. There’s an arrogance in that, but that arrogance is tempered with innocence. He’s often looking for validation from his wife, and, ultimately, the reader.

Overall, though, I enjoyed reading his tales of adventure. His style is very back-page-of-a-newspaper-magazine column. Sort of like Dave Barry if Dave Barry wasn’t Dave Barry.

But one reason I enjoyed the book was I understood part of what drives him. The idea that it can’t be hard, and it must save money, and the result will be so much better is what drove me to start my own indoor herb garden. And I have had thoughts similar to:

At some point, without evening realizing it, I had crossed a line. I remembered a stupendous dinner we had one Autumn evening: pork roast with apples, acorn squash, baby lettuce, Peruvian potatoes. Anne pointed out with pride that everything except the pork came from our garden, and I stopped in midbite, intrigued. Pig farming. Could we, I wondered out loud, raise a couple of pigs? Just think, fresh, organic pork. Forks froze in midair. Mouths stopped chewing. Silence smothered the table as three terrified faces stared at me, then at one another, not sure if I was kidding. I wasn’t sure if I was kidding.

Page 164

But he doesn’t let his garden go that far. He pulls back to reality. But gardening is about possibilities. It’s about creating food and plants several feet high from almost microscopic seeds. It’s about the possibilities of creation.

Gardening is, by its very nature, and expression of the triumph of optimism over experience.

Page 258

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed his book and why I enjoy my own garden. It’s an inherently positive activity. If not an easy one. As Alexander concludes one autumn:

I will miss the fresh tomatoes, the crickety sounds of summer, the lobster rolls eaten on the porch. But I am also relived that summer is over. Gardening is often thought to be a genteel, relaxing hobby, an activity for the women of the garden club as they dally about in their straw hats, fitting lotioned hands into goatskin gloves, sipping tea under the shade of a magnolia. I am not a member of that club. For me, gardening more often resembles blood sport, a never-ending battle with the weather, insects, deer, groundhogs, weeds, edgy gardeners, incompetent contractors, and the limitations of my own middle-aged body. And it turns out to be a very expensive sport.

Page 257

The book is a worthwhile read. It’s entertaining, and really tells the reader about Alexander and his garden. His stories are funny, informative, and evocative. It’s a fairly quick read. While I find it difficult to stop after each chapter, it’s not because of annoying, continual cliff hangers. It’s because I want to hear the next tale. Since the book is highly modular, however, it is a great choice for anyone who has just 30-45 minute chunks of reading time.

To follow his post-book gardening tales, or to learn more about the book, visit Alexander’s website at www.64dollartomato.com

And with that, I’ll leave you with one final thought from the book:

The great terrifying existentialist question: If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now? ...That is, if the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can second Cromely's recommendation. The book's a hoot, but will also make you think. I see that it's up for a Quill Book Award (Debut Author of the Year). Voting at http://quillsVote.com