Book review: Musician from band The Mountain Goats draws on Midwest experience for new book
October 6, 2017
by John Darnielle
John Darnielle is a man with a gift for storytelling — especially when that storytelling takes unconventional forms. I was first introduced to him through his band, The Mountain Goats (of which I've been a longtime fan), so you can imagine my excitement when I realized he'd made the leap from lyrics to prose.
“Universal Harvester” is Darnielle's second novel, and it draws heavily on personal experience. Much of the book takes place in rural Iowa, where Darnielle spent part of his life gazing at vast, sleepy cornfields – only in his iteration, the fields are overlaid with a mixture of anxiety, confusion and dread.
The book is split between three overlapping timelines: First, we are introduced to a young man named Jeremy, who drifts between his job at a video rental store (it's the 90's) and the home he shares with his father, as they grapple with an old loss and a new mystery; second, we see a family just beginning to grow in the landscape of 1970's rural Iowa, only to be abruptly split apart; third, we see some modern newcomers to the area, a retired couple and their adult children, who stumble onto some baffling secrets in the basement of their new home.
Darnielle's method of storytelling is very smoke-and-mirrors — you know all of these timelines connect, but figuring out how and, most importantly, why is an answer that is not given up easily.
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Truthfully, this story is not so much about figuring out the mystery as it is about the horror which grief can inspire and our reactions to the unexplainable, along with a wonderful examination of Midwest mannerisms to make you crack a smile.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
Megan Martens is a bookseller and barista with Off the Beaten Path.