Buried in the basement clutter of boxes and forgotten keepsakes lay several, original copies of his earliest books. “A Fine and Pleasant Misery,” “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?” and “Never Sniff a Gift Fish.” They were all down there, each one autographed, most included a witty comment or a private note. He didn’t know me especially well – I have no doubt others have similar copies in their own libraries – but each one felt special and personal, and I squirreled them away like treasures to be rediscovered again and again.
A Pat McManus hardcover was the first book I received as a gift, with exception, perhaps, of a Bible during First Communion. Had those stories been autographed and just as funny, I might have been more impressed, but as a 10-year-old boy fascinated with frogs, fish and dirt, I could better relate to Pat’s adventures with acquaintances Rancid Crabtree and Retch Sweeney, than I could with who begat whom thousands of years before. Ol’ Rancid despised showers as much as I did, and as far as I could gather, didn’t have much interest in girls, either – a double bonus to boot.
Pat’s over-the-top storytelling and clever, satirical style contained similarities with that of another great American writer, born nearly 100 years before. Like Mark Twain, Pat had no ambition to become a humorist writer, first dabbling in journalism before developing a sardonic wit and characterization of American notions that would make both authors popular across a wide variety of audiences. Using life experience and observation as the framework for his stories, Pat doubled down on exaggeration of the ridiculous and used occasional self-deprecation to get a laugh from his readers. Dog farts, unlawful teenage exploits, misadventures fly fishing – nothing was off limits, or unfunny. In a 1996 interview with Sandpoint Magazine, Pat explained how difficult it was to write humor because of the specific intent “to make people laugh. You have no leeway. Either the people laugh or they don’t. It’s a very existential thing. And you don’t ever really know what is going to make people laugh.” Whatever his formula, first displayed in a 1968 Field and Stream article, it would prove effective for decades to follow.
My father, an ardent fan of Pat’s, turned devoted student of his in the early ’80s at EWU, where Pat taught as a full professor until his retirement in 1982. The Liere clan has, and continues to build upon, an extensive catalog of embarrassing material over the years, one that evidently intensifies with each new generation. With Pat’s encouragement and mentoring, Dad set about documenting near-fictional, outdoor humor stories with his own flair, managing a few laughs along the way and becoming successful in his own right. By relation, I got to go along for the ride, and had the privilege to meet his mentor and my idol, Mr. McManus, at the impressionable age of 12.
I don’t remember for certain, but I likely froze in his presence and said nothing. If not, I’ve no doubt whatever words managed to leak out did so in a squeak of insignificant adolescence. Like I said, our clan is ripe with humiliation.
My chance for redemption wouldn’t come for more than a decade, while home on leave from the service. My visit was conveniently timed to coincide with the turkey season and Dad’s wild-game dinner – an annual event that pairs eccentric game dishes with equally peculiar characters, not unlike those described in the chapters of most McManus collections. Crazy Eddie, Retch and Rancid were stand-ins for relatives and friends, each with a story, all with tales of humorous adventures and exaggerated lies. Only there on the couch, holding a paper plate of fried beavertail and roadkill rabbit, sat the great creator himself.
Typically not one to be star-struck, I approached Pat to shake his hand and greet him, as if meeting up with an old friend, but I felt myself reeling, losing years of maturity and self-assuredness, slipping back to an adolescent place deep inside. My vocabulary wilted and I stammered – badly. Instead of sitting down with a literary idol, asking for advice and gushing admiration, I instead expressed how grateful I was he could make it to the event, that it was nice to see him and his lovely wife again, and then I moved on to the dessert table. What? I blew it. Like I inferred to before, I’m a dork.
That was 23 years ago. Pat left us quietly this week, without so much as a goodbye, ending any chance for another shot at redemption, or an opportunity to express our thanks. Inclined as she is, Mother Nature set upon him with her own brand of twisted humor, leaving those that accompanied him on his lively adventures to carry on without.
The path ahead can be sad and difficult to navigate at times, but Pat made it easy for us, leaving behind a blueprint of colorful tales full of triumph and joy, defeat, embarrassment and humility, exaggeration and ridiculousness – model examples of great, humorous storytelling.
Downstairs, packed away in an unmarked box, I uncovered a book of remedies certain to cure the blues. The inside cover read “To Matt – Never stop laughing. Pat.”
For the next 192 pages, I never did.