JANUARY 15, 2015
AGAINST THE COUNTRY, the debut novel by former Harper’s literary editor Ben Metcalf, seems engineered to slow you down. Technically speaking it’s a fictional memoir of a family of five living off the land in the Virginia woods — or, more accurately, failing to do so in spectacular fashion. That’s the easy part. In the hands of Metcalf, a recognizable enough chronicle of backwoods decline is transformed into a haze of narrative turmoil that unspools in loosely related vignettes and sprawling self-reflections that beg even the most patient reader’s indulgence.
Our guide through this journey into despair and storytelling is the family’s youngest son, now grown up. Like every other character in the book (save for his father), he remains unnamed, just another anonymous cog toiling vainly in the uncaring cosmic sausage factory we call nature. As narrator, he’s his own force to be reckoned with. His delivery, supremely affected and given to generous mock-humility, appears to be drawn from the finest Southern stereotypes in classic books and film — if they made references to the Bhopal disaster and Thorstein Veblen.
He’s a bleak, complicated fellow, the literary equivalent of a rotting country porch: beguiling on the outside, but deathly serious underneath. He comes off as a sort of cynical Forrest Gump, his deceptively cornpone anecdotes about his family’s endless indignities spiked with nihilistic commentary on farming, M*A*S*H, Jesus, and the (foul) state of the republic. Under his stewardship the story dives into novelistic kookiness. He offers his readers only a tenuous thread of a plot, and there’s no dialogue between his characters, only recollections of the objectionable deeds they once committed. The product is a kind of anti-autobiography that mocks the pretense of storytelling itself.
Early on, in one of the book’s rare plot disclosures, we learn that the family migrated south from Illinois. Though they lived in a “middling depot” (we’re never told exactly where), even its few comforts were too many, and they “set to quit the company of mankind altogether” by moving onto a homestead in rural Goochland, Virginia. Thus sets off a chain of entropy uniquely American in its scale and strength.
And the country — at least this godforsaken patch of it — is indeed rotted. Goochland County (which, incidentally, is an actual place) is a rustic dystopia, a space where primitivism is as much to be feared as any futuristic sci-fi conjuring. Far from a simpler place of smiling livestock and free-range bounty, the land is one inescapable pit of organic tragedy. In the narrator’s hands, everything in Goochland is a horror. Everything. Even wholesome berry picking — that eagerly anticipated pastoral pursuit of overworked city residents and suburbanites alike — is turned into a nightmare of hemorrhaging fingers and hissing snakes. The book is one long catalog of the ways in which nature is able to reduce humankind.
Not that the humans are all that innocent. In Goochland, people are maimed in the sorts of dramatic, low-tech ways that only poverty and alcohol can maim, and ignorance is a currency well spent. Consider, for example, the party at a local firehouse the narrator attended when he was an adolescent. Before long it’s interrupted by a report of two classmates “doing it out in the ditch.” He recalls:
I myself was taken off by my brother to witness the fornication, which act we had heard tell of but never ourselves observed, let alone performed, in a ditch or otherwise. We were bound to be disappointed. All the ditches we came upon were empty of people, if not of sin, and the grass around these gouges admitted of no rustle, except where we yelled “Copperhead!” and kicked the next boy’s legs out from under him, sure in our inebriation that he would not land ass-down on an actual snake.
The characters’ nearly unmitigated wretchedness, coupled with their hinterland locale, brings to mind Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, with rural Virginia standing in for wartime Poland. All of the Southland’s classic horrors are on display, with none of its redeeming qualities, like sweet tea, Elvis, and first-rate hospitality.
The unstoppable parade of calamities invoked by the narrator suggests one of two things: either the book is a long, hard poke at rural fetishists, or it’s a sincere reproach to country life. It seems to be in part the former, given how it plays with stereotypes of the South and rural life, especially those held by outsiders. It’s almost as if the book is daring you to take up that banjo. “You want your soul-affirming Americana fantasy? Here you go, asshole.”
Against the Country is made up of seven chapters, or “books,” and within each are a dozen or so subsections, all of them just a few pages long. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible rhyme or reason to the titles, which include a mix of objects, sentence fragments, and proper nouns. (To wit: “Trash pit,” “As we paused in our chewing,” “Beckett,” “Kindnesses,” and “A crueler iteration.”) Within each subsection the text is surrendered to descriptions and parenthetical statements that stretch many words long, each subordinate clause buckling before the next one until — at last — a revelation is yielded by the narrator.
This point typically involves an observation about life in Goochland, or America, or the universe in general. Though there are dozens of encapsulated recollections, they’re only marginally tied to a larger storyline. As a result, the family’s chronicle limps along one meandering folk-truth or rhetorical question at a time. This is by design, and may be praised by stylistically minded readers; but the result is a book that is hard to savor, much less digest, without the distance of time or multiple readings.
Better, then, to appreciate the novel for the unsettling mood it conjures. Darkest storm clouds gather above the family from the opening pages and refuse to move along. In one of the subsections, “Sanctuary,” we learn about a time the narrator, fed up with being bullied by his middle school classmates, greeted his morning school bus with his father’s shotgun. The bus (and students inside it) escapes without harm — this time — but destiny has only been temporarily averted. As the narrator explains, “It had already been decided, ages before, by the land itself, how a violence such as mine should be treated: delicately, lest in time a greater violence be lost.” In his little plot of the earth, the pull toward violent disaster is gravitational.
The belief that nature is actively out for our blood stands in contrast to prevailing fashion. For one, think about all the smiling faces at your farmer’s market. Or Richard Dawkins, who famously declared that “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.” The residents of Goochland would seem to disagree. The creative abuses suffered in their midst, where houses ooze the smell of shit and flies cover their walls, seem beyond the pay grade of mere indifference. Toward the end of the book, while the narrator is forced to attend a high school assembly on drunk driving, he muses “how proper death often looked against a country backdrop.”
Life is different, we learn, in “town,” the narrator’s term for those places with a population density to rival Mayberry. Town is consistently deployed without an article or any identifiable referent, as much a state of mind as a physical location. Its civilizing nature, however, saps its power to haunt. Town may be a refuge from horror, but it is also boring. It was the country that gave us Thomas Jefferson, and corn, and the Carter Family, as the book reminds us.
At least, I think so. Themes are in here, buried beneath the thickets of prose, but Lord if you don’t have to work to find them. Against the Country presents a challenge many may relish. It offers a strange, imaginative take on our national mythology. Still, the story takes so much effort to comprehend that exhaustion sets in long before its merits can be appreciated. What we’re left with is a sense of heavy atmosphere, a vague feeling that all is far from well.