Wednesday, July 12, 2017

UIniversal Harvester by John Darnielle

John Darnielle came to novel-writing late, after a long, and still flourishing, career as a songwriter and performer. He's been the central force, and occasionally the only member, of The Mountain Goats for nearly thirty years now.

And the assumption always is, when someone famous from another loosely-related creative endeavor decides to write a novel, that it's some kind of vanity project. But Darnielle is the real deal -- he took a detour to get to the novelist's chair, but he's been trying to get there his whole life. And he deeply belongs there.

Darnielle has followed up his excellent first novel Wolf in White Van with this year's equally slim and powerful Universal Harvester, showing that he's not just a guy who happened to write a novel (we all have one in us, right?) but a bona fide novelist.

This may be a spoiler, but Universal Harvester is not a horror novel. (At least, not in the Stephen King sense.) For a long time, it looks like it might be -- there's an atmosphere of looming ominousness, of unknown things going on in the background that may be deeply horrible when they're fully known.

And, you know, a lot of life is deeply horrible when it's fully known. Just this morning, I read a story in the paper of a man right about my age killed on a local highway. He'd stopped, carefully, on the shoulder, to adjust cargo on his car. Another car careened across several lanes to smash into his stopped car, killing him instantly. Witnesses described the crash as so violent that both cars "flew up into the air and spun around." Passers-by saved the elderly driver who caused the crash and her passengers with only minor injuries; a woman traveling with the dead man had to be life-flighted to a hospital, and is still in bad condition. That's just one example: death and pain and destruction lurk around every corner, and the people who are responsible so often skate on blithely while the people around them pay the price.

That car crash was a Mountain Goats song, or could have been.

Universal Harvester has a crash crash in it, but a smaller one, not as pyrotechnic and impressive. Maybe that's because the novel is set in a patchwork of small towns and farmlands around Nevada, Iowa, and for a big, impressive crash you need a multi-lane highway to give you both high speed and a lot of witnesses. The horrible things in Universal Harvester are smaller and more personal -- things that happen to you and your family in private. The things you don't share with outsiders, because they'll never understand.

Perhaps I should mention that there's another car crash -- one that happens before the novel opens. That's probably the most horrible thing here. But it's an Iowa crash as well. Devastating to the people directly affected, but no big deal otherwise.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

I'm not writing much here about the story of Universal Harvester. It's set somewhere around 2000, maybe a few years later or earlier, in a small video shop. Jeremy, a clerk in that store, gets reports that there are other scenes taped over some of the movies -- we're long enough ago, or far enough out, that VHS is the major format. He watches the scenes, which are clearly amateur: shaky camera, no dialogue, long shots of not much happening. They're also clearly from somewhere nearby. And they might be of something horrible happening: there are figures in masks, or tied to chairs, or huddled under tarps while a booted foot kicks them.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

Jeremy makes it his deal. He has a deep connection with the film-maker, which he won't know -- which the reader won't know -- until much later. Jeremy investigates. He watches the tapes. He shares them with others, who are also worried and appalled. They make plans and theories. They think they can find something wrong and fix it. But, again, this is not a horror novel.

It's not a novel about people chasing people with axes, at least. Not about supernatural forces from outside the world that are the real source of evil. Not about stopping the One Bad Thing, despite huge costs, to put the world right. It's not a horror novel. The real world, and the world of Universal Harvester, doesn't have horrors like those.

It has horrors like mothers that die, suddenly. Or that disappear, in a way that's worse than death. And it has people who have to go on living, on those oblivious Iowa two-lane roads, after those horrors happen. Just like you and me, in our own ways, in our own places.

It's a Mountain Goats song, on a larger scale -- a story of people trying to live their lives under adversity and neglect and fate. There are no easy answers, no horror-novel monster that can be killed to make the world better. The world only gets better day by day, through everyone's efforts, in tiny increments. And maybe it doesn't seem to get any better at all. And so there's no moment at the end when you know you've killed the monster. Because the monster is life. The monster is other people. The monster is you. The monster is everything and nothing.

Universal Harvester is a strong step forward from an already strong first novel in Wolf in White Van. Darnielle keeps his focus on people and their lives, with a deep sympathy and understanding of grief and loss and sadness. As long as you don't expect it to become a horror novel, you can get a lot out of it.

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