Wild Adventuring... at Home
DAVID OWEN's The Walls Around Us magically reconstructs the dry condescension of "How-to books" into tales of adventure, quests for knowledge, and lots of jokes (most on him). "House Restoration" may stir memories of Dad's growling out back at the water pipes, of Mom's repainting the dining room yet another sickening mauve, or of your finally washing the dishes, but for Owen it is a way to replay long-gone childhood in style:
"when I was a boy, my favorite places to play were construction sites. Then I became an adult and grew wistful... My youth is gone forever, I would moan as I trudged through the grown-up world, paying bills and registering to vote. Then around the time I turned thirty, I made an astonishing discovery: if you set your mind to it, being a grown-up can be even better than being a kid, because you have more money and a car. Grown-ups doen't have to steal tiny bits of plywood from a building site. They can buy entire sheets.
Owen is now really a "free" kid: "I love buying expensive power tools and using them to wreck various parts of my house," he celebrates at his book's opening.
His book is not all about destruction--although his dining room has been suffering this stage wall-banging for two years now. ("It becomes invisible after a while," Owen explained in an interview). The Walls Around Us is also about discovery. Owen introduces the reader to every power tool and house building material, from his favorite electric miter saw to roof shingles and shakes, and also to many people--from a hardcore hardware man to the ghosts harbored inside his own house's walls. When Owen was stripping the "crazy wallpaper" from his daughter's bedroom, he discovered ancient tabloids of teenage boy graffitti--most likely from the first half of this century when the house was a boys dorm called Hurlburt: Love and death--are they man-made and fake, too? an eerie voice asks the home restorer.
Owen's book promises that a house is much more than "a huge box filled with complicated things that want to break." He writes, "My house was a canvas on which other people had been painting (or, more recently, wallpapering) for more than two hundred years." And then he waxes romantic:
"Every house is a work in progress. It begins in the imaginations of the people who build it and is gradually transformed, for better and for worse, by the people who occupy it down through the years, decades, centuries. To thinker with a house is to commune with the people who have lived in it before and to leave messages for those who will live in it later."
Even with such poetry, Owen does manage to maintain the frame of a practical how-to. His goals for the book extend far beyond the pleasures of entertainment. A fan of zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which he read in college), Owen wants to "demystify technology" for all home owners. "There is a powerful feeling of tranquility that comes from knowing how one's house is put together," Owen writes. "My childhood would have been somewhat less anxiety-ridden had I realized...there was no way for pirates to crawl... from the laundry chute to... my bed and stab me through my mattress."
More practically, this book protects readers from the misfortunes of the amateur. He writes, "The knowledge one gains in the course of doing something is usally the knowledge one ought to have had before trying it in the first place." It will also save readers from the "mercy of... contractors" because they will be "more likely to notice when the job begins to go awry."
The Walls Around Us is segmented into nine chapters covering all necessary information from "how to make your paint stick" to how to do your own electrical wiring ("and when to get someone else to do it"). Yet, even in these "techy" passages, Owen stays interested and interesting. He explores the Keeler & Long paint factory to find our how paint is made, where porcelian blocks and round stones whine and grind pigments which pour into thousand-gallon mixers, and he visits the first American Sawmill, (Jamestown, 1625) to learn about the origins of lumber.
Along with machinery know-how and history, we get philosophy and sociology. In describing different house sidings, for example, Owen surmises upon the social implications of each one: readers can choose to be apparently rich (but not really rich) brick person, or they can settle to be "just a vinyl-siding kind of guy."
In The Walls Around Us, Owen has created art like he has in his house-a place of imagination and of tales to tell. All you need is a house, an in-flow supply of cash--a car would help--and his book.