I always let Norb Blei think our first encounter was the kind letter he sent to me in 2002 after I wrote a column about the fiercely talented Florida novelist Harry Crews.
I framed that letter when it arrived and continue to treasure it.
Norb, who died last month at 77, wrote that he, too, was a Crews fan, and in possession of a rare, limited-edition Crews book I was welcome to borrow. He went on to say some nice things about a book I had recently published about Chicago columnist Mike Royko. Norb, who lived in Door County, was from Chicago and knew Royko.
It was a little overwhelming. Norbert Blei was among the Wisconsin authors I most admired. His essays on Door County, which celebrated the land and scolded those who would exploit it, were collected in several books. They had a prized place on my shelf, along with my favorite of his works, “Chi Town,” a collection of pieces about his hometown, on subjects ranging from Studs Terkel to hot dogs.
I managed to communicate some of that to Norb when I wrote him back — the start of a decadelong friendship — but I never told him we had a brief, earlier history.
The first writing I was ever paid for was a book review for the Milwaukee Journal. This was late 1978, and I was 22. I sent an unsolicited review of a novel by Tom McGuane and the Journal’s book editor, Bob Wells, not only printed it, he sent me another book, a short story collection, to review.
I no longer remember the author of the short stories, but I remember well that somewhere in my review I referred to the short story as “a dying art form.”
I remember because not long after the review was printed, there appeared on the Milwaukee Journal books page an essay defending the vitality of the short story form. It was written by Norbert Blei. He referenced my review — though not me by name — and dismissed it as written by “another critical crepe hanger.”
I was aghast, because he was right. Not as many magazines might have been publishing short fiction as once did, but to say the form was on death’s door was lazy thinking. It was a great lesson. Words matter, especially in print.
Thinking back on it now, I can see the response was quintessentially Norb. He could be prickly. He knew good writing, and he recognized poseurs. Not for nothing was he a revered teacher of the craft.
He was also, let me quickly add, full of good humor, an amiable barroom companion, a matchless storyteller.
We met in person the first time a year or so after he sent me the letter about Harry Crews. Norb was going to be in Madison reading from a new edition of “Chi Town” at Canterbury. He came in a day early for a meeting with the University of Wisconsin Press on Monroe Street. They were considering reissuing some of his books. He suggested a drink at the Laurel.
Norb drank Scotch. We commiserated about publishers and were pleased to learn we had a good mutual friend in Chicago journalist Rick Kogan. I think it was in his book on the Billy Goat Tavern that Kogan wrote, “There was a time when poets wrote for newspapers.” The line made me think of Norb.
A year later, Norb was back in Madison, and this time he wanted to meet at Nick’s on State Street, probably his favorite Madison haunt. I brought along my friend Bill Dixon, thinking they would hit it off, and they did. Bill told some stories about hanging with Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison. Norb signed a couple of books for Bill.
A few years later, Norb sent along a new and expanded edition of one of his early books, “Meditations on a Small Lake,” with a warm inscription. I called Norb in Door County to tell him how much I enjoyed the book. It’s a mix of Blei’s own writing along with pieces about him written by others.
One of the profiles, which originally appeared in Milwaukee Magazine, was written by Madison’s George Vukelich. George noted that a mutual friend had warned him about Blei, “He’s different. It’s a like a mixture of Studs Terkel and Henry David Thoreau.” Of course, the two bonded immediately. Norb told me later he loved listening to Vukelich, who died in 1995, on Wisconsin Public Radio. “I miss him so much on the Wisconsin scene,” Norb said.
Then he laughed and told me about the upcoming launch party for “Meditations on a Small Lake.” Norb was talking to a friend, a Lutheran minister in Juddville, in Door County, and said, “The proper place to launch this book is a church.”
“Use mine,” the minister said.
“It’s perfect,” Norb told me. “Nobody knows where Juddville is.”
I think it was the summer of 2010 when I learned that Norb had a health problem and was unable to fulfill a speaking engagement at a writers’ conference in Green Lake. The organizers asked if I could fill in.
I was honored and humbled. I thought about the Harry Crews letter, and I remembered, too, that Milwaukee Journal book review and how I never could bring myself to come clean to Norb about it.
His death last month sparked numerous tributes, including a nice one from Kogan in the Chicago Tribune. A memorial service is planned for late June.
I found myself wishing I had told Norb about the short story review, and his pointed response. I’m pretty sure he would have laughed, and I think he would have forgiven my youthful stupidity. Well, maybe.– Doug Moe – May 13, 2013
Doug Moe writes about Madison and the people who make it a unique place. His column runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the State Journal.