Mixed (Up) Reviews -- I

Guns, Grit and Glory: A Brief History of the Patio in America

By Henry Hayes

University of Panama City Press; 236 pp.


The chief flaw in this engaging illustrated history lies in its misleading title, which suggests there is only one patio in the whole country, an assertion we can refute by finding two nearby patios and looking at them at the same time. Aside from this oversight, though, "Guns, Grit and Glory" succeeds in revealing the history behind this often overlooked feature of the American home.


 “The patio, since its inception, has been a fringe figure, an outsider,” the historian Henry Hayes writes. Rather than feel sorry for patios, however, Hayes ventures into the heroic if little-known attempts to raise their status, including the effort among Confederate States to bring them indoors. This campaign nudged the nation toward civil war and prompted two lines in Abraham Lincoln’s diary: “If the South succeeds in bringing patios indoors, I fear it will portend an unfathomable rift in our sacred Union. Also, where am I going to conduct my daily 11 AM ritual of getting a bit of sun while feasting on a glistening, eight pound honey-glazed ham?”


Most thrilling is Hayes’ recreation of the duel between Federico Santiago de Patio and his rival Cristobal Bacaporch, who were among the 15th century Spanish architects competing for a commission to redesign the royal back yard of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were bored with the existing options, because there were basically none. Hayes recognizes the presumptuousness of reporting on a historical event at which he was not present and thus renders the scene with the requisite murkiness, choosing to have his narrator observe the duel by crouching in nearby bushes and peering out at intervals.


“Definitely two guys over there,” his narrator reports. “Oh my God – were those gun shots? I have no idea what’s going on.”


Is the book best enjoyed on a patio? That depends on the reader, since some will be emotionally overwhelmed by being so close to – literally, on top of – the subject being discussed. Would one care to read about D-Day with both feet planted on the beaches of Normandy, or risk being called unpatriotic by standing on President Obama while reading "Dreams from My Father"? Read on a patio or not, Hayes’ book is likely to stir feelings of guilt, especially given the possibility that either Cristobal Bacaporch or Federico Santiago de Patio was killed in order to make it possible, though, owing to Hayes’ sensitive account of that duel, we cannot be sure.


While Hayes avoids telling his readers how to feel about patios, he discloses that he has spent time on them, and offers an exhaustive list of well-known figures who have done the same. But this, if anything, complicates the matter, since the list includes not only such figures as Frank Sinatra and Gerard Manley Hopkins but also Hitler and post-Godfather Francis Ford Coppola.


Dr. Hayes, who is the Cortisone-Snow Leopard Professor of Humanities at the University of Panama City, has made his career turning his attention to little-noticed aspects of American life, in books like "Keep In: The Difficulty of Scaling Fences," and “In the Back Yard: What’s Edible?” And last year he shifted from the academic to the personal with the publication of his memoir "Summer of ‘78," detailing the period when his stepfather locked him in the backyard and refused to let him into the house.


Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.

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