Sound And Fury (And Then A Little More Fury) In 'Against The Country'
There are a fair number of people out there who've been waiting for this novel for a good, long time. Because of who Ben Metcalf is (an outspoken essayist, the former literary editor for Harper's Magazine, an all-around light of the word-slinging world), there were a lot of people waiting to hate it. Maybe an equal number waiting to love it. The good news? Both sides are going to be happy.
Against The Country is a screed. Almost the definition of one, depending on which side of that love/hate divide you fall. It is a long, meandering, explosive, fierce, grating exploration and refutation of the notion that all the good in our national character comes from the rural, the pastoral, and all our manifold sins are born of town. At its most basic, it is a Southern Gothic yarn about the youth and coming-of-age of an unnamed narrator, growing up in the fictional Goochland County, Virginia — a land of evil soil, terrible parents, vicious idiots, snakes, racists, genius chickens and suicidal dogs.
Trouble is, there is nothing basic about Against The Country. Nothing that comes even within hollering distance of simple or straightforward or plainly presented. Metcalf has written a book that is like a test-to-failure experiment on modern literature as a whole; a daring conglomeration of every trick, swindle and gimmick possible using only ink and paper, a pulpwood imagination machine so finely and expertly wrought that it can take on Jefferson, Thoreau, the church, patriotism, race relations, sexual identity, J.D. Salinger, the myth of America and a thousand other targets without shaking itself completely to pieces.
Here's Metcalf's narrator on God's false promises about the country: "It seems hardly to have occurred to my ancestors, or to my own parents, that this same God had for centuries shown a marked preference for town, and a tendency to yield the whole of the wild expanses to Satan, and had inspired (at least in His New England penitents) a fear and a hatred of the natural world intense enough that anyone who expressed an admiration for the woods, or a curiosity about the high grass beyond the village, was likely dubbed a witch and set directly on fire."
Metcalf has written a book that is like a test-to-failure experiment on modern literature as a whole; a daring conglomeration of every trick, swindle and gimmick possible using only ink and paper.
That, it should be noted, is one of the less complex sentences in the entire book. The fact that I found it on page 11 should not suggest that the book starts easy and grows in challenge, but that after 11 solid pages of raging against fools who believe goodness to arise solely in the presence of trees, I think Metcalf just got tired and wrote a simple(r) sentence to allow himself the mercy of a breath.
Maybe I should've said this earlier, but I had to look up Ben Metcalf's name before reading the book. Because I am apparently an illiterate rube, I had no idea who he was. And maybe I should've said this earlier, too, but I, in my own complicated way, fell hard for the book on page one, wanted nothing so much as to throw rocks at Metcalf by the middle, then came back around again to a deep affection by the end. It is a highwire act, start to finish, and I respect any literary aerialist who can pull something like that off.
Against the Country is a supremely challenging book — eschewing plot or, you know, anything in the goddamn world happening, and not made for relaxing with but, rather, for obsession. I read it sometimes out of ecstasy at Metcalf's virtuoso sprays of words, working his keyboard like Horowitz at the piano (and sometimes, oftentimes, more like Errol Garner playing stride), and sometimes out of rage at its author for being so clever and persnickety and in love with the sound of his own voice and trickeries.
But regardless, it is absolutely and completely worth all investment of time and effort, because it is an undeniably beautiful object, sharp as a new razor, its wandering and deliberate plotlessness, by the end of things, congealing into something better: a story.
Walking away (no one, I think, will read this twice), you're suddenly struck by the realization that you know the narrator now as well as you know anyone in your life. I know Metcalf's man out of Goochland better than I know my own brother. Than I ever knew my father. Than I know my wife. He has been unveiled to me, which is the thing that Metcalf does in place of a plot — the best, most subtle trick he pulls, which, considering the profusion of tricks, is truly saying something.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.
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