Rock and Roll Book Club: John Darnielle's 'Universal Harvester'

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A special promotional edition of 'Universal Harvester'
A special promotional edition of 'Universal Harvester,' mailed to press, was enclosed in a VHS tape case (Jay Gabler/MPR)

It's the late 1990s in small-town Iowa. A young man named Jeremy works at the local video-rental store while he figures out what do do with his life. One day, a customer returns a tape and complains that there's something wrong with it: a scene cuts out, interrupted by a mysterious dark interlude with heavy breathing.

Weird, right? Then another tape gets tampered with, and this time what Jeremy sees is much scarier. Jeremy shows the disturbing video to his boss, who thinks she recognizes a house that appears in the clip and decides to drive out to confront the house's owner.

That sounds like the premise for a gothic thriller, and in a sense that's what Universal Harvester is. As the story zigzags across the decades, though, the stories of a few different families unfold and we begin to realize that not all acts of rural violence committed in cold blood are murders.

Darnielle is best-known as the leader of the band the Mountain Goats, but he's starting to make waves in the literary world as well. His debut novel, Wolf in White Van (2014) was both a bestseller and a critical success, earning a National Book Award nomination among other honors. Universal Harvester, his second novel, was just published yesterday.

Mountain Goats fans know that Darnielle is one of his generation's most evocative lyricists, with a Springsteen-like gift for pithy stories and resonant settings. It's unsurprising that he's able to apply that gift to prose, and as an author he has an impressive ability to build complex narrative structures around lucid passages that illuminate life's small triumphs, great tragedies, and unknowable contingencies.

Universal Harvester is told from the perspective of an unidentified person; we don't learn who it is until the end, and the voice is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but an incompletely-informed one. The narrator tries out different versions of some key events. Did it happen this way, or that way? Sometimes the narrator doesn't know, and thus neither do we.

The book is divided into four parts. Each centers on a different story, and you have to pay close attention to figure out how they interlock. It's highly readable, but Darnielle repeatedly frustrates the reader's inevitable expectation that it's going to build into a conventional whodunit. The plot does have a narrative resolution, but not necessarily an emotional one.

If you're a Mountain Goats fan, you'll definitely appreciate Universal Harvester — but you don't have to know Darnielle's music to appreciate his writing, which will keep you turning pages and will stick in your head just like a great song will.

The Current's Universal Harvester Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Universal Harvester giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $15

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.

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This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2017 Official Giveaway Rules.


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