LitStack Review: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

by Sharon Browning

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Ferrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date:  February 7, 2017
ISBN 978-0-37428-210-3

Full disclosure:  I grew up in Iowa, so John Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester has home field advantage in a play for my loyalty. After all, I already knew that Nevada, Iowa is pronounced Neh-VEY-dah, so I had the inside track on that one, as well as many of the other geographical references in the story. Also, I understand why he named the novel Universal Harvester*, which I have a feeling only a handful of people can claim, so it lends me a sense of being astute. Kind of hard to argue with that.

But regardless of my own personal feelings, I can say that Universal Harvester is a gorgeously written, powerful, disturbing novel with an abundance of languid prose where little happens, and yet lives are defined, found, and broken. It’s also a story about mothers, or rather, the lasting affect mothers have on our lives, even when they are lost.

The book centers around three nebulous, coinciding story lines that originate with 22-year old Jeremy, who in the late 1990s is working at the Video Hut in tiny Nevada, Iowa (hint for the kids out there:  before streaming video, YouTube, Netflix and internet cable, folks used to watch movies on videotapes that they would rent for a week at a time from franchise businesses like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and smaller, mom and pop places with names like Video Hut). He’s worked there since high school, and it’s pretty easy if somewhat unfulfilling. But one day he starts to get reports from customers that some of the tapes have “something on them.” Something that doesn’t belong.

Jeremy takes two tapes in question home to check them out, and finds on each a spliced a scene from what looks like a home video – jumpy, poorly lit, strangely threatening and incredibly disquieting. For Jeremy, who lives with his contractor father (his mother was killed six years ago in a car accident), this is both a mystery to be explored and a complication to ignore. He brings it to the attention of his boss, Sarah Jane, who owns the Video Hut.

When they discover more scenes and realize that some of them contain local landmarks, each reacts differently. Jeremy is willing to let it go – or at least, hand the problem over to others – whereas Sarah Jane is bothered by it but digs in tenaciously. As more splices are discovered, and the scenes become increasingly more alarming, the scope of the story grows in both breadth and darkness.

While the intertwining stories are compelling, it’s how they’re told that is truly holds our interest. The narrative does not follow a straight line in either chronology or veracity, jumping back and forth in time (even forward, in conjecture) and employing a lot of “what if’s” and “perhaps” and “in a different life…” kinds of musings. Occasional unexplained first person statements injected into what had been a strictly third person narrative proves incredibly unnerving. And while big, life changing actions do indeed occur, the conclusions that come from them are less concrete, and motivations behind them are very fluid, even to the point of transparency.

This lack of narrative stability would be frustrating except that it is so beautifully done. It is not surprising, actually, that author John Darnielle is also a well known indie musician (he is the founder and primary member – often the sole member – of the band the Mountain Goats) – the entire book almost has the feeling of being a set of lyrics, telling a story from fleeting images and their accompanying resonances.

Take for example this absolutely spot on depiction of the importance of laissez-faire genealogy and geography at Midwestern family gatherings:

Tracing of movements was the whole of the process. If the recruiter from Caterpillar collared Mike at the job fair and offered to double his salary inside of two years, then that was how Mike and his family ended up in Peoria: but simple movement atop a shared, internalized map was still the heart of the action, the desired point of engagement.  Bill’s up in Storm Lake now. Did he sell the Urbandale place? The place off Seventy-second? No, that was a rental. Oh, is that right? Yes, the Handsakers owned it, they rented it out for years until their youngest got back from Coe. You mean Davey? Well, but he goes by Dave now. From Davey to Dave to Dave’s parents to their folks you could get a fair bit of talking done, but the trail went cold at about that point. Jeremy’s mom’s grandparents were Russian somehow, one of those places that wasn’t really Russia anymore. His great-grandfather on his dad’s side had come from Germany. But it went no further than that. The tracking of local movements was sufficient work until it came time to part ways, and they’d pick up where they left off at Labor Day, or Christmas.

Yup. Nailed it. In fact, John Darnielle nailed all of it. By the end of this slim yet potent volume, the mystery of the spliced tapes may be answered, but that’s less the concern than what happens to those caught up in the reason for them being in the first place. It’s a heartbreaking yet weirdly affirming book, that leaves a deeper impression from the telling than the tale itself. And that feels about the way it should be.

~ Sharon Browning

* International Harvester was a manufacturing company famous for its bright red agricultural machinery – combines, tractors and the like. Those big, red brutes were immediately recognizable, just like the John Deere greens. In an interview with NPR, Darnielle shares that the title Universal Harvester is a play on the agricultural icon, with an eerie twist. He says, “Universal Harvester? I mean that sounds just deadly, you know, it just sounds very, very ominous to me. Because what is the Universal Harvester? Obviously, it’s the skeleton in the cowl and cloak carrying the scythe — that’s your Universal Harvester right there.”

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