STARRED REVIEW
February 07, 2017

The tale of the tape

By John Darnielle
Review by

About midway through his latest novel, Universal Harvester, author John Darnielle drops a potent clue to a larger reveal, but in typical Midwest fashion, it’s unadorned, unheralded, that one massive bass lurking beneath the deceptively calm waters of an otherwise unassuming lake.

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About midway through his latest novel, Universal Harvester, author John Darnielle drops a potent clue to a larger reveal, but in typical Midwest fashion, it’s unadorned, unheralded, that one massive bass lurking beneath the deceptively calm waters of an otherwise unassuming lake.

Here it is: “You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing, you have to listen long enough to hear the music. Or possibly that’s just a thing you tell yourself when it becomes clear you won’t be leaving. Sometimes that seems more likely. It’s hard to say for sure.”

Darnielle, who is probably best known in pop culture as the prime mover behind the celebrated lo-fi indie band The Mountain Goats, was also nominated for the National Book Award with his NY Times bestselling debut novel, Wolf in White Van. In Universal Harvester, he explores the role of novelist as tarot card reader; as he uncovers each scene, he seems to say, “This could mean X, or it could mean the opposite of X. Let’s flip over the next card to see what it reveals.” The plot springs from a series of unexplained and vaguely disturbing scenes that continue to show up on videotapes rented from an indie store in the hamlet of Nevada (pronounced Ne-VAY-dah), Iowa. Slacker clerk Jeremy Heldt gradually—and a little reluctantly—immerses himself in attempting to unravel the mysteries of what the footage is, where it came from, and what it means.

The spirit of the Under Toad from John Irving’s The World According to Garp hangs heavy over this novel. Corn fields that appear benign under the noonday sun turn sinister after dark, basements and barns conceal clandestine confrontations, shadow and substance play tag in imagination and reality. One almost expects Rod Serling to step out in an epilogue, wrapping everything up with a neat bow, but Darnielle refuses to make it that easy for the reader. Universal Harvester both demands one’s attention and rewards it, but ambiguity is interwoven throughout its warp and weft. Out there on the lit-fic frontier where horror meets mystery and reaches for something beyond, that’s the ultimate achievement.

Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, CA, and has actually driven through Nevada, Iowa.

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Universal Harvester

Universal Harvester

By John Darnielle
FSG
ISBN 9780374282103

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