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In John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester,’ a Heartbreaking Mystery Unfolds in Nineties Iowa

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John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, is a study of different kinds of limbo. There’s the temporal limbo of its setting: the late-1990s transitional period between pre- and post-internet life. Then there are its people, living amongst empty cornfields and endless, flat highways. They’re people in the process of making decisions, or avoiding having to make them at all, whose lives are about to be invaded by a jarring surprise.

The book’s first central figure is a young man named Jeremy, who works at the Video Hut in Nevada (that’s Ne-VAY-da), Iowa. One afternoon, a customer returns a VHS copy of an early Peter Bogdanovich movie, Targets, and says, “There’s something on this one.” The premise that unspools from there, of tapes showing up at the store with disturbing clips spliced in, preys cleverly on the time gap between the book’s setting and the present day. When readers in 2017 hear about grainy black-and-white tripod footage of people in a barn with canvas sacks over their heads, or running frantically down moonlit gravel roads, we think of The Blair Witch Project, or perhaps a Paranormal Activity sequel. But Harvester‘s small-town citizens, living modestly in the late 1990s (the year is never specified, although it’s probably 1999, since one of the characters mentions Blair Witch), have a different reaction: They don’t care, whether by instinct or by choice. The movie industry hasn’t yet trained them to expect grotesque horror from found footage, and they are for the most part too private to want to look into something that appears so odd.

The exception is Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, who immediately begins to investigate, and this reaction — her curiosity, and the intrusion into other people’s lives that it requires — is one Jeremy can’t fathom. He does get involved, albeit unintentionally (and somewhat unwillingly), after looking for Sarah Jane at home but finding her instead at a farmhouse outside town that looks an awful lot like one that appears briefly in the tapes. The middle-aged woman who lives there is named Lisa, and she and Jeremy have a lot in common.

Lisa is also the child of a single father, although her mother isn’t dead, as far as she knows, just missing. Both children learned to fend not only for themselves but also for their fathers, hard-working Midwesterners who discover after the fact that they relied on their wives more than they thought. Darnielle offers scene after lovely scene of these now-lopsided families at home, cooking or keeping house — tender, wrenching portraits of parent and child struggling to conceal their mutual grief. Darnielle presents all this not as quiet strength but as unremarkable routine behavior, refusing, like his characters, to make a big deal out of getting through life.

Darnielle himself lived in Iowa during the time period of the book, and although he didn’t work in a video store, he did spend a season at a grain elevator, where he — a native of Southern California — learned that Iowans are this way, deeply reticent but with rich inner lives. In his experience, they cared about one another but didn’t like to burden anyone with their thoughts. Universal Harvester is ultimately less of a Stephen King horror story and more of a eulogy for this disappearing way of life. The Iowa Darnielle brings us to is a vast, unchanging place that can be both comforting and suffocating. His prose, honed over decades of songwriting for the Mountain Goats (his primary focus), is perfectly suited to this kind of story. In song, he distills entire lives into evocative three-minute scenes of caustic wit and painful tenderness. His fiction writing drops water onto that brittle sponge, expanding his signature voice in a way that’s relaxed and infinitely readable.

But sometimes he gets self-indulgent, and he’s more guilty of this in Harvester than in his 2014 debut novel, Wolf in White Van, which was similarly interested in characters’ inner lives but carefully sharpened the exploratory prose into piercing weaponry. Harvester instead exposes the underside of that deliberate slowness: plodding vagueness, territory into which Darnielle veers often. One such passage ponders the road not taken, in painfully metaphorical terms: “But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, its specific warp and weft? You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing, you have to listen long enough to hear the music. Or possibly that’s a thing you just tell yourself when it becomes clear you won’t be leaving…it’s hard to say for sure.” The next line crashes abruptly back into the plot, and you’re left wondering why you had to suffer through such abstraction when the events that follow make the same point more vividly.

The longer he teases out the mystery this way, meandering through these hypotheticals and the insignificant details of characters’ memories, the more the creepy footage feels like a bait-and-switch, imported from a different, tighter book to make this one more immediately jarring. As the final section rushes abruptly toward, and then through, an explanation, the careful simplicity of the preceding chapters shatters, without much impact.

Then again, the secret behind the tapes is fairly devastating, although it’s not the horror we’ve been set up to expect. It’s sadder, and more ambiguous, and by the time we arrive at its unveiling it’s hard to imagine another, graphic conclusion making much sense — or being scarier. What Darnielle delivers instead is an unsettling, almost terrifying truth: that we can never fully understand the people around us, and by the time we realize they need saving, it may already be too late.

Universal Harvester

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

214 pp.

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