John Darnielle is already something of a big deal. As frontman and creative driving force for alt-rock cult figures The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has been crafting beguiling pop lyrics for approaching three decades, garnering major praise for the depth and deftness of his song-writing. The Mountain Goats’ songs tackle big themes, they are linked together in tracks and cycles, and, frequently, they feature a heavy literary bent.
But we’re not here to talk about the music. There are pages upon pages of writing on the subject of The Mountain Goats already, and Darnielle has proved himself to be a serious literary talent worthy of examination.
It’s been almost ten years since his first book hit the shelves; Darnielle’s 2008 contribution to the 331/3 series of extended essays on classic albums was the genre-bending Black Sabbath: Master of Reality, which took the reader on a journey which was more fiction than fact. Several years later, in 2014, Darnielle released his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, which was shortlisted for The National Book Award.
Next came “difficult second novel” Universal Harvester – released in February of this year. For this book, Darnielle places us in the midst of a vast, rolling expanse, his prose competently evoking the undulating, monochrome textures of the Midwest. All around us, there are cornfield oceans, long straight roads, farmhouses and grain silos, and hills “too low to give a name to.” It is a landscape bewitching in its uniformity and one which will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in this region of the United States; specifically in Iowa.
The scenery is drab and painted in muted tones, but there are urgent stories here, there are desperate narratives, and Darnielle shows these to us. Darnielle’s characters are awkward young men working in video stores, middle-aged widowers tip-toeing back into dating, they are teachers and business owners searching for connection, they are elderly parents chucking it all in to start again in the country, they are college students taking a break from achingly-hip Portland to return to the heartlands, they are Christian evangelists, they are families torn apart, they are families brought together. They are, above all, human.
Universal Harvester is an odd book and could have been a failure in the hands of someone less skilful. The focus pivots back and forth from nuanced ‘kitchen sink’ family drama to straight-up mystery thriller; a shift which could be jarring to the reader if it were not for Darnielle’s neat handling.
In the early stages of Universal Harvester, the novel’s “double life” is presented to us across the fulcrums of two its major characters; Jeremy and Stephanie. Jeremy is working in a video rental store, and negotiating a relationship with his widowed father. Stephanie is a stalled forty-something who dreams of escape from the Midwest, until she discovers something unsettling on one of the tapes from Jeremy’s store. It seems someone has been recording over some of the tapes, splicing their own scenes into these Hollywood narratives. Some of these scenes are tedious and boring, others deeply sinister and disturbing – who is behind all of this? Who are the victims in the videos? Are they still alive?
The mystery is the thread that binds the disparate stories together. Darnielle weaves across four decades, managing to maintain a taut and suspenseful forward motion without losing sight of the humanity of his characters. There are universal themes at play here – of love and loss and ambition and companionship, and of home – and there are characters whom we genuinely care about.
Universal Harvester is not a perfect book – one or two of the situations feel a little under-explored, and the character development could perhaps have benefited from more flesh on the bones – but it is certainly the work of a talented author who is still growing into his craft. There is a rare sincerity to Darnielle’s work which makes it incredibly rewarding, and which provides a satisfying experience to the reader. Watch this space; we could be about to witness something very special indeed.