Monday, May 24, 2004

Corking Good Time

Cork Boat, by John Pollack, Read by John Pollack, Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004

The story of Cork Boat is a strange one, a touching one, moving simply because it is so fancifully unlikely. As a child, John Pollack loved boats. He made his first from orange crates (it sank); his second attempt, the Milky Way, a floater made from old milk cartons eventually was overcome by mold; then later while reading about cork, he became fascinated with the idea that a boat made from cork could not sink. He dreamed of one day making a boat from cork. Or corks to be more precise.

And so he began saving corks, a few here and there, with the plan to one day build a boat entirely from wine corks. It is a boyhood dream, and one he mostly sets aside as he grows up in the shadow of his sister’s death, his parents’ frequent travels, and his becoming a speech writer for Democrat politicians. It remains, where all childhood dreams do, just resting at the back of the mind.

Eventually disgusted by the Clinton impeachment circus and burned out on the “real world,” Pollack quits his job to finally make his childhood fantasy a reality. Living off his savings, he begins to collect corks, corralling Washington D.C.’s bartenders to save him all their wine corks for the project. At every stage of the project, there are setbacks. Snootier restaurants snub him. The planned big haul on the millennium is a bust. Wine corks stored in plastic bags grow moldy. Plastic wine corks make inroads into the wine business but are worthless for his purposes. Worst yet, a sub-cork wine stopper made up of pieces of cork glued together, the dreaded agglomerate. It looks like a real cork, but it soaks up water like a sponge. As Pollack himself notes, if he used agglomerates, he might as well be building a cork submarine.

Despite it all, a spirit of childlike wonder and whimsy energize Pollack ever driving him on, even when the project ceases to be fun, even when his partner in construction, friend and architect Garth Goldstein, repeatedly bails on him for work or rock climbing trips. Even when his previous estimate of how many corks are necessary doubles, triples, Pollack keeps dreaming of that cork boat.

The book is roughly split into two halves and each half is its own almost self-contained story, each capable of standing alone with a little addendum summation of the other half appended.

The book’s first half introduces us to Pollack and his family and his dream. We follow the boat’s construction plans as various methods are tried and tested for holding the boat together. We meet the motley crew of volunteers Pollack reins in to help make his dream a material reality. And Pollack lets us follow him back into part-time work and an eventual hiatus on the Cork Boat as he’s tapped to be a speechwriter for President Clinton. Part one ends with the frenetic pace of boat construction as they strive to beat their deadline (they don’t) and ends anticlimactically with a dry launch, then a week later an actual trip down the Potomac.

The second half of the book is less biography and more travelogue, as through a series of events engineered by the Cork Boat’s sponsor (Cork Supply USA), Pollack, his parents, Garth, and a rotating selection of the original volunteers pilot the boat down the Douro River in Portugal. We are treated here to a short history of cork and Portugal’s place in the cork business, and we, along with our narrator, visit quaint and strange little fishing towns along the river. The visit of Cork Boat to Portugal becomes a national sensation with Pollack being interviewed for Portuguese television and magazines, idolized by children, and cheered on by the populace.

This tale is a strange and humorous one and I found myself grinning as I listened. It is the charm you might imagine necessary inherent in someone who pursues such a crazy childhood dream that allows him to so round up volunteers (over 100), sponsors (the nation’s premier cork provider, Cork Supply USA), donors (at one point even the navy chefs at the White House), and corks (165,321).

Interspersed throughout the story, we are treated to sidebars detailing the cork wars between cork purists/traditionalists who only want to bottle with the wood, and the synthetic cork corporations. We learn about how corks are made (from a cork maker press release which Pollack, hardly a disinterested party, quotes liberally). And are treated to some cork history.

Cork was used very early in human history, but after the fall of Rome, cork stoppers for bottles fell out of use. People used oily rags, wooden plugs, etc. (They didn’t call it the dark ages for nothing.) And it was that hero of champagne drinkers, Dom Perignon, who rediscovered the magical properties of cork. And it was the English scientist Hooker, looking through a microscope at a cork, discovered it was made up of tiny pockets of air separated by thin walls. It made him think of monks' cells, and thus led to the term "cell" for biological science.

Pollack learns these and other bits of arcane cork lore at that preeminent institute of learning, the Library of Congress. What struck me at this point in the book is the bizarre confession of Pollack of how he (a speech writer, a writer) living and working in Washington D.C. all this time, applied for a Library of Congress library card only once he finally began his cork boat project. As a writer, I find it staggering that someone would wait that long, that a writer would wait at all upon moving to D.C., to apply for a card at the nation's premier library. This is sort of typical as the city of Washington is there, but it’s at a remove, it is the faintest of backdrops. It is what Pollack retreats from, as much as he can.

In the midst of the project, September 11th occurs. The weekend following, Pollack goes out to the garage space he and Garth have rented for a workshop and continues drudging on, rubber-banding handfuls of cork together, thinking maybe he should suspend the project for a while. One by one, his core group of volunteers arrives, each seeking the distraction from the world though a mindlessly repetitive task built from whimsy. It is the book's most persuasively touching moment. The camaraderie, the artificial yet natural family they’ve created bind them closer, give their assorted grouping a dynamic and healing whole.

A Washington Post column discussing the boat inspires people from around the country. From all over, people send him the corks they'd been holding on to all these years, collecting without any sense of greater purpose. In this moment, the story becomes The Great All-American Story, e pluribus unum, a tessellation. It transcends itself, and a tale that seems so removed from reality, touches reality with an overwhelming humanity.

This Washington Post column also lands Pollack and Garth on NPR's All Things Considered. In this part of his story, Pollack returned a memory to me. I heard this very broadcast when it first aired, sitting in a parking lot of Lowe's. I parked the car, but did not get out, listening to the curious story. It was a hopeful idea in that dim time and it underlined something I'd been thinking then.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, so many pundits and talking heads said that this spelled the end of irony, the end of carefree humor in America and the world. I resisted that idea fiercely. At no other time was whimsical humor, light and fancy free, more important. What happened was terrible, but it was by no means the worst thing to ever happen in the history of the world, and comedy had continued on before then in the face of tragedy. The world needed to smile.

More than nearly anything, the world needs laughter and comedy. The events of September 11th were the transient triumph of the humorless, of those who do not laugh. Those pundits who prematurely proclaimed the death of irony were then at that moment briefly correct; certainly, in the aftermath, it is not the time for pull-my-finger routines, but to harp on the idea that such antics will never again be tasteful or worse, necessary, is the ultimate surrender.

Yes, there were too many instances of people using the idea of the terrorists winning as justifications for selfish behavior and appalling actions, but to allow ourselves to believe that things had passed beyond the point for humorous redemption truly would be letting the humorless win. Hearing that story gave me the courage and strength and the ability to understand that I was right. Humor, laughter, whimsy, irony itself are never more important, more healing, more life-affirming than in the wake of catastrophe. It need not be gallows humor, though that has its place in ameliorating sadness and depression, but to become humorless is to give in to death. Hearing Pollack later recounting that NPR session reminded me of those feelings, of that moment. His book is suffused by just this very idea.

As a reader, Pollack's voice is youthful, a bit high, a bit nasally, which gives the childhood fantasy come-to-life a buoyant capriciousness and adds to the book’s magical quality. The drawback to this (as to many author read works) is that Pollack isn't a polished deliverer and his pacing is often faster than necessary especially in the beginning. He often overpronounces and says things in the careful phrasing of non-professionals trying to sound professional. (In its hardcover edition, the book is suprisingly and sadly lacking in any photos of the boat itself, though you can find pictures and video here.)

Cork Boat is a captivating work and it leaves us with the final image of one single cork, the only cork to be lost on the whole journey, bobbing in the bay of Porto as Cork Boat is pulled from the water and loaded on a truck. In this coda, the story of Cork Boat is both the story of an individual and a group, the individual inspiring others and each of them inspiring others in turn. It is the quintessential American story.

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