Against The Country – A Novel, by Ben Metcalf
There’s much to admire in this, Metcalf’s first novel, but I confess, I didn’t like it all that much. Let me explain.
The novel has never ceased to change, to grow and morph as a literary form. And in Metcalf’s hands, it shows yet another side, married, if you will, to the essay. His text has no dialogue, except the paraphrased kind, and his tone the essayist’s, seemingly in a quest to make sense of a rural life. His narrator takes us by fits and starts from childhood to adulthood in a prose as eloquent as any you might read. It’s elliptical, somewhat stream of consciousness, which makes me think of Joyce’s Ulysses. He’s a master of subtle, wry humor that can suddenly turn raucous and irreverent. With his narrator out front, he paints in strong, sure strokes, life in rural Virginia in all its bucolic nastiness.
What, then, is wrong with a story written via such a strong set of skills? Too much of a good thing, basically. His eloquent voice grows cloying over 300-plus pages, like eating too much ice cream. That the book is basically a rant from cover to cover causes it to lose much of its sting by the author’s seeming inability to find much pleasant or uplifting in the Virginia woods. And then there’s the odd juxtaposition of such erudite language over the narrator’s rough-and-tumble, rural life. Oh, he tries to make this work by allowing his crude, violent father to change from a man of the soil to school teacher, but father and son’s transformation from backwoods rednecks to thoughtful, eloquent men is rather weak without depicting the transformation’s steps.
Metcalf’s project here seems confused-initially to deconstruct Thoreau’s view of rural life as romantic, healing, educational. He accomplishes that, but the effect is like throwing a gallon of gasoline on a campfire that’s burning quite nicely by itself. But then there’s the middle of the book, in which the author allows his rural rant to turn personal, against his father, as if their relationship is an albatross slung about the son’s neck too deep into adulthood.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars