Midwestern Horror Mise en Scène
Universal Harvester falls short of its promise
In the acknowledgments section that concludes John Darnielle's second novel, Universal Harvester, he writes, “This is a book largely about mothers.” If this book is about mothers, however, it is only about their absence. As the first line of the final chapter of the story lays out, “In most lives, in most places, people go missing all the time.” It is the missing—among them the mothers—that the book unfolds around, and underneath their absences are the stories of those who have been left behind.
Amid the quotidian routines of life in rural Iowa not much happens. That makes what Jeremy Heldt and Sarah Jane Shepherd discover all the more chilling. Jeremy works behind the counter of Video Hut, shuffling returns and cashing in a few dollars here and there. One day a customer mentions—with much reticence—that there is “something” on the reel that doesn't seem right on a VHS of She's All That. Jeremy takes home the tape and watches it alone in the living room of the home he shares with his father, the unsettling scene he encounters mid-film plays out like this: “A little wind across the camera's microphone, the audible rise and fall of a person breathing. There was a timecode in the corner scrolling along. The date read 00/00/0000. There didn't seem to be much else to see, but the breathing sound quickened and movements began breaking roughly through the dark. The scene lasted about four minutes.” This is the first of several scenes uncovered, and certainly the tamest, as with each seemingly inane cassette slipped into the VCR new, bizarre scenes loosen the hold the characters thought they had on the only places they've known.
Jeremy, like many of the characters Darnielle writes about (in both his musical project, The Mountain Goats and his previous work Wolf in White Van) is a small town nobody. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life and has little inspiration to make much more of it than it already is. He crushes on a girl, but doesn't do anything about it—not out of fear, but almost out of apathy. It is with this attitude of indifference that Jeremy wades through the story, not doing much to push the action forward. Perhaps it is Darnielle's lead that does a disservice to a plot whose bones seem as though they would make for a read that compels the reader to keep turning pages. However, that is not the effect. Over 100 pages in, I was still waiting for something significant to happen—some drawing of the curtains that would piece-by-piece illuminate the mystery in the dull Midwestern sun.
Universal Harvester is all about the slow build, and taken as a whole, it has a certain poetry, but here there are none of those signature, devastatingly precise single lines that mark Darnielle's lyrics and that also made Wolf in White Van so memorable. That's not to say that this novel lacks haunting scenes. It's built upon them. Take for example, a moment when Irene—one of those important mothers—stands in the kitchen of a farmhouse shortly after being pulled into the folds of a strange and devout religious sect. The scene is rendered from the perspective of her husband, who wakes up on the upholstered couch and thinks he hears Irene singing to herself. He slowly realizes it’s not a song she is speaking under her breath, but a prayer, repeated over and over and over again. There's a certain eeriness as we feel the alienation of this man from his wife in the same moment that he first realizes it—and simultaneously both the character and the reader are forced to wonder how well we can ever really know another person. It's an extremely well executed scene and speaks volumes of Darnielle's talent.
The book reaches for more revelations like that one, but they come too few. It is a flawed work of such great potential—I have to admit that even as one of the biggest John Darnielle fans you'll find, no matter the medium he's working in. Compared to his prior work, Universal Harvester—despite its amazing jacket design and intriguing concepts—fails to ever pull the reader in fully. As it stands, this book reads like the second draft of a novel that will be really, really good. It's worth a read, but if you love Darnielle as much as I do, brace yourself for the work to not quite hold up to the very high standard you have set for him.