Let’s say you are a writer sitting down to pen your first novel. Your narrator’s biography borrows from your own: He spends his early years in Southern Illinois before he is uprooted and dragged to the unyielding red clay of rural Virginia during the 1970s. To put it mildly, he doesn’t like it there. He doesn’t like it at all: not the land, or the heat, or the blackberries, or the snakes. Certainly not the people, most of whom he considers either “tool-belted speed freaks” or “bearded mediocrities.”
Maroon this Underground Man in a version of the county outside Richmond with the actual, un-improvable name of Goochland.* Mire him in trash heaps, snare him with barbed wire, and subject him to the countless torments and indignities of the local public school bus. Then breathe into him the high-handed vernacular of a Calvinist preacher and set him loose to deliver a spittle-soaked jeremiad against “real Americans” and the tyranny of their “small-town values.” Your narrator is John Winthrop, locked out of his city upon a hill. He’s Cotton Mather, shipwrecked in the post-Skynyrd South.
Can you possibly pull off a conceit this ambitious and this absurd?
Almost. But only if you are Ben Metcalf (a former literary editor at Harper’s) and the novel is Metcalf’s much-anticipated debut, Against the Country.
At first, Metcalf’s unnamed narrator dazzles with his Puritan deadpan and capacious intellect, not to mention his double-barreled blasts of dark humor and wicked satire. Metcalf winks at Whitman, Joyce, Eliot, Frost, Twain, Blake, and Veblen, among others, all of whom represent an oasis called “town,” which is so far from Goochland that it might as well be outer space. Town, “where good grades attract scorn, yes, but tend also to pay off in the long run and are not always taken for signs of arrogance or homosexuality,” shines like a beacon in the howling, unholy wilderness.
That “folksy” pastoral America many of us romanticize and embrace uncritically? As he guides us through the awkward exile of his teenage years, the narrator insists it doesn’t exist. It’s a ruse, a lie, a wisp of smoke. Underneath, it’s simply an excuse for bigotry and provincialism. “Is this eschewal of anyone remotely dissimilar,” Metcalf writes, “in case we might be forced to interact at the mall with someone we perceive to perceive himself better, or with someone we perceive to perceive himself worse, really the brave individualism we imagine? Or is it instead a collective and thus extra-cowardly form of suicide?”
These types of pithy observations originally made me forget that I was reading a book with no real plot (the narrative is arranged as a series of short, explosive rants) and following a protagonist I would never really get to know. The archness and hilarious pomposity of the diatribes, coupled with a cast of truly grotesque characters, reminded me of what you might get if you transplanted Lewis Miner, the narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, into the work of Donald Ray Pollock.
Goochland’s creepy racists and brain-dead criminals are, unsurprisingly, the easiest targets for Metcalf, but he’s not just shooting fish in a barrel here, which sets him apart from many writers who take themselves far too seriously when attempting that nearly impossible hat-trick we call “Southern Gothic.” Metcalf’s characters are stereotypes, sure, but they are conscious of themselves as stereotypes: that’s the point. What’s more, no one in the county escapes un-flogged, not even the self-righteous “degreed hippie types” employed at the local home for juvenile offenders, “who approached every being they met or engendered as a broken wing they might nobly fail to repair” and “who thought that thermal underwear and down vests bought at a Richmond mall, as well as jugs of corn liquor bought off the odd local, put them well in touch with the rural experience but in no way compromised their superiority to it.”
There are so many brilliant turns of phrase in Against the Country that it’s hard to choose favorites, but Metcalf is at his sharpest and most seductive when his antihero does more than blast and blame, when he steps outside his sermons to say something real.
“I understand that a brown belly distended by hunger abroad allows a pink one at home to be swollen by gluttony,” Metcalf writes. “I understand that a piece of shrapnel through the brain of a sand dweller’s child allows a subdivision dweller’s child to acquire a piece of parchment it has not earned and probably cannot read. I understand that for every outlander tortured to death in a faraway jail cell an American retains the freedom to announce that he has taken Jesus into his heart and will not release Him until all the homosexual abortionists have been killed.”
But there comes a point where virtuosity, even at its most entertaining, simply isn’t enough. Unmoored from larger themes, the once-amusing winks and nudges start to grate, the footnoted asides nested within other asides become exhausting, and you just get tired of being grabbed by the lapels so forcefully and so often. Even the most devout admirer can begin to feel, after too many pages of plotless pétit allegro, stuck in some as-yet-undiscovered circle of hell with Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani: The good news is that every note in every solo is sounded with exquisite perfection. The bad news is that every note is part of a solo.
In Against the Country, that point of derailment happens in Book 5, almost 200 pages in, when the narrator abandons his social critique and focuses on his abusive father, devoting several incomprehensible chapters to the man’s middling appraisal of Salinger. Hardly a sentence passes that is not shackled to a series of parenthetical self-interrogations. “(Was I not…?)” “(Could I not…?)” “(Did I not…?)” Thereafter, the story devolves from satire into sneer, and the characters—stereotypes or no—collapse into a warring clan of cornhusk dolls.
Where is the sly commentary about schools in which “guns, which apparently do not kill people themselves, arrive now and then armed with deadly children”? Where is the protagonist who refuses to submit to the “baseball-capped, goateed man-child who attaches himself by vacuum seal to the government tit yet insists that the nation’s wealth flows like a river from its pristine source (himself) to condescending town”? Where is the bold, provocative voice that challenged me and made me laugh at the same time? It disappears.
That abrupt shift wouldn’t have been so disappointing had the rest of the book not been so promising and so ferociously original, and had it not been written with such obvious, even obsessive, care. It’s possible that the final chapters are, in a nimble-smarty way that is most definitely beyond my patience, part of a prank that only Metcalf and a small clique of eccentric geniuses are in on (“Better to hate at the end of a book, I say, than to love,” Metcalf tells us at novel’s conclusion), or that fans of ultra-trippy metafiction will see these sections as a triumphant rebuke of the reader’s expectations. Oh, you want an ending? I’m sorry. Have some oddball vignettes about family dogs instead.
But I finished Against the Country feeling that an enormously talented author had squandered my goodwill and shut me out. No matter how I turned the story around in my mind, I couldn’t figure out why.
Against the Country by Ben Metcalf. Random House.
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*Correction, Jan. 9, 2014: This piece originally misstated that Goochland County, Virginia, is fictional. It is a real county outside Richmond. (Return.)