If Hemingway, Twain and Garrison Keeler were to somehow have a son, that son would be Bob Gray. A much beloved long-time resident of Housatonic MA, Gray has been writing a column in The Berkshire Record for 30 years as well as publishing fiction and nonfiction in well recognized journals. A former teacher, he has added self-publishing to his resume. Housatonic: Life in a Backwater of the Beautiful Berkshires is a collection of favorites from his column with a few newbies thrown in. More than a memoir, it’s a book about a town, a time and change.
Six miles north of Great Barrington on Route 183 (the same route one takes to get to the Rockwell Museum and the Tanglewood Music Center), Housatonic is an old mill town with a thriving artistic community, quiet streets and empty factories. It was not always thus. The Housatonic of Gray’s book is filled with the noise of factories and a cast of characters as wonderful as any southern short story: “Fuge”, the one-armed umpire with a magical “flipper” for a left arm; “Sparky” who rakes the schoolyard for coins once the snow melts; “Charlietaxi” the respected Town Selectman and the YoYoMan who slides into town on the first days of spring to peddle Duncan Yo-yos (my preferred brand as well).
But it is Bob’s friends who provide the joy in this book. Their adventures would have made Tom Sawyer jealous and Huck Finn proud. In the story, Crucifixion on Pine Street, the gang puts on a Passion play complete with cross and rabble. Ice rinks, rafts, basketball, girls, and injuries are just a few of the topics Gray covers in his nostalgic look back at the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My favorite story, How Sweet It Was, tells of Montana’s candy store. I too used to spend my time in class figuring out how much, and which kind, of candy I could get for my money. The candy store is now a restaurant, Pleasant & Main (which I will be reviewing in a few weeks) whose owners have decorated it to look and feel just like it must have back in the day.
I enjoyed reading this book because I have heard Bob tell these stories. He is a natural storyteller; everything out of his mouth sounds like the beginning of a great short story. There is a way he has of sharing deep wisdom and personal experience that is profound and unintentionally hysterical. Much of this comes through in the book though, like most written works by storytellers, I found myself wishing for more development of character, more details, and more atmosphere. But this is in some ways the mark of a really good storyteller: they always make you want more.
Bob Gray is an experience everyone should have the pleasure of enjoying. You can hear him tell his stories the first Tuesday of every month at Deb Koffman’s In Words Out Words open mike at her gallery in Housatonic (137 Front St. Showtime is at 7pm). If you are lucky, you can catch him tootling about town and ask him to get a beer and some nachos at the Brickhouse Pub. He’ll tell you all about the way things were back in the day.
Or buy his book. It can be purchased through Amazon or at the Book Loft in Great Barrington.