Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

It is hard to leave home,
and sometimes it takes a long time.
Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.

Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertainment of an evening, when they share a few cans of weak beer - ‘Beasts’ - and watch movies. Thus far the narrative exists in a fug of small-town Iowan isolation, shot through with a sense of loss and dereliction. However, the first hiccup arrives and pushes this lost, post-industrial agricultural scene into something resembling the infamous Koki Suzuki Ring horror series. Customers start noticing disturbing and unexplained cuts in the movies they’re renting. Short scenes of stillness or bizarre dancing in barns or disused farmhouses, unnamed people squirming beneath sacking, a girl running down a dark road –Jeremy’s interest is peaked and he sets out to explore the meaning of it all. This could have set in motion some sort of American Gothic Horror novel but it hiccups again, and then there’s a story of another lost mother, and another car crash. Dad finds a girl, Jeremy finds a new job, and it turns an oblique corner into something else again.

It all feels a bit wintery Americana in some respects, but with a lot of the chill coming off the very weird vibes of the mystery video clips. It’s a moving novel for all of that, and the mystery, although not quite satisfyingly resolved, draws the reader on through the tired agricultural landscape of small-town middle America and the middle American lives it encompasses. It feels something of an anachronism to be reading “Be Kind, Rewind” again, more Psychedelic Furs than Mountain Goats, and a little uncomfortably Tarantino-esque to be lost in nostalgia for the 1990s, but in the end that’s not what this is about; it’s simply a mode of conveying something of the liminal physical and emotional spaces around our lives.

I didn’t know then whether I seriously liked this novel or if I was beholden to a strange sense of loyalty, given I enjoy most of Darnielle’s music and do occasionally foist him onto friends, colleagues, and strangers, but in retrospect, and with a good distance from which to consider it objectively, I know now that I do. It’s a creeper, a grower, and its slow reveal is even now ongoing.

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