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Lost & Found: David Gates on Dolly Freed

David Gates introduced us to Dolly Freed’s cult classic of way,-way-off-the-grid living, Possum Living, back in our first issue. We liked the book so much we ended up reissuing it. Here’s David’s original paean to Possum.

I found Dolly Freed’s Possum Living (Universe Books, 1978) in the attic of the fixer-upper farmhouse I bought in 1985, along with a stack of Sunset books on such topics as building decks and preserving vegetables.  The previous owners had been utopians, too.  Its grocery-bag brown covers and faux-typewriter type-face fit the post-hippie, Carter-era gestalt suggested by the subtitle: “How to Live Well Without a Job and with [the word almost careted in] No Money.”  It advocates a life of quasi-Beckettian simplicity: foraging in supermarket dumpsters, burning scrap wood and dead branches in woodstoves homemade from oil drums, raising rabbits in the basement (“We take close to 300 pounds of meat out of that cellar per year”).  What makes all this refreshing is Freed’s utter lack of high-mindedness.  “We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them…So if you’re thinking spiritual or sociological thoughts, don’t waste your time with me.”

Supposedly Freed was nineteen years old when she wrote this, living with her divorced father, aka the Old Fool, in a Philadelphia suburb.  Here and there she gives glimpses of a rancorous, downwardly mobile, borderline-violent milieu like that of her contemporary Raymond Carver.  “A friend of ours,” she notes in passing, in a chapter on “everyday nitty-gritty law,” “lost his cool and threatened his wife’s lawyer in open court.”  She goes on to advise better methods of bringing an “adversary” to reason: “Visit his house late at night and do something to let him know he has an enemy who has no intention of playing the game by his rules.”  Among Freed’s broad hints: cut his phone line, poison his dog.  The dark stories she never quite tells and her even-handed contempt both for the culture of acquisition and consumption and for ecopuritan ideology make Possum Living one of the out-of-control classics of American cantankerousness, like Walden, ABC of Economics, Steal This Book! and The Closing of the American Mind.  It directly inspired parts of my first novel, Jernigan: my protagonist’s girlfriend raises bunnies and reads a magazine called Suburban Survivalist.  I credited Possum Living in my acknowledgments, but never heard from Dolly Freed.  That was back in 1991; both my dog and my phone line are still okay.

David Gates is the author of Preston Falls, The Wonders of the Invisible World, and Jernigan, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at Bennington College and The New School.

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