Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood chills as much today as it did in 1965, and not merely for its account of a gruesome murder in middle-of-nowhere Kansas. In describing the family’s isolation, the town’s collective misperception of its own safety, and the killers’ lack of motive, Capote captures an underlying truth to the Midwest that strangers to the region rarely see outside of slasher flicks like Children of the Corn: the nation’s bread basket is terrifying.
Pioneers knew this. The first European settlers suffered Prairie Madness—a mental affliction symptomized by depression and bouts of violence—that developed after months of exposure to the land’s ruthless tornadic winds. When farmers today report hearing voices in the field—an occurrence more common than city dwellers might think—psychologists chalk it up to radio waves bouncing off metal farm equipment. But visit the Midwest any day in October to see just how culturally ingrained the phenomenon is: If a “haunted tractor ride” doesn’t spook you, a tramp through a “haunted corn maze” might.
Few books in recent memory have mastered the Midwestern uncanny as well as John Darnielle’s strange and lyrical Universal Harvester. The novel opens on Jeremy Heldt, an early twenty-something working at a video store in small-town Iowa at a time when VHS tapes were still available to rent. Like so many Midwestern white boys on the cusp of adulthood, Jeremy isn’t sure where he belongs or what he’ll do next. But for now, he stands behind the counter, chatting with a local about fishing, when a customer walks in to complain about what appears to be scenes of home movies spliced into her rental. He inspects the tape, and sure enough, the movie’s been edited to include footage of…something. A hooded figure perhaps? Writhing bodies beneath a tarp? Darnielle maintains suspense by stopping just short of explicit description.
From this moment forward, the book defies expectations. Instead of unfolding as a gothic thriller brimming with mystery-solving and monster-dodging, it becomes something far stranger. Jeremy isn’t all that interested in pursuing the mystery of the tapes (though his boss is). He instead grows thoughtful, in plaintive Midwestern fashion, about the possibility of a new job and whether it might help him to escape a past marked by tragedy. His mother, we learn, died in a car accident, and his father, who he lives with, is lonesome and worried about his son. The book becomes, in part, a meditation on grief and healing and a young man’s need to find his footing in a world of limited opportunity.
But it’s also more than that. In a later section, the book flashes backwards in time to a young mother who finds herself drawn into a cult-like church. And later, we meet that mother’s grown daughter. The storylines all eventually intertwine, but not without a degree of abstruseness that I found enthralling but which might put off some readers.
Complicating the story further is a startling shift in perspective that breaks contemporary narrative convention. I won’t spoil where and when the shift happens, but I will say that its reveal is not unlike a ghost materializing. Like Midwestern corn fields, this book haunts in many ways.
It’s also gorgeously written. Via the Mountain Goats, Darnielle is known for poetic songwriting, a talent parlayed into elegiac descriptions of the Midwestern landscape: “The wind comes across the plains not howling but singing. It’s the difference between this wind and its big-city cousins: the full-throated wind of the plains has leeway to seek out the hidden registers of its voice.” He also captures the land’s frightening remoteness:
A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence. […] To make yourself heard, you’d need something substantial: the roar of the combine harvester in autumn, mowing all of this to the ground, and then rolling back over the stubble like a ruthless conqueror from an alien planet. Or something greater, bigger, louder. An airplane. But nobody’s going to land any airplanes out here.
By both celebrating and lamenting the harshness of the Midwest, Darnielle reveals why it allures as much as it repels. The deeply moving Universal Harvester, with its genre-eschewing structure and ambiguity, may prove to be equally divisive.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published February 7, 2017
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. His previous books are Black Sabbath: Master of Reality and Wolf in White Van, which was nominated for a National Book Award.