In his poem “The Task,” the 18th-century English poet William Cowper wrote that “God made the country, and man made the town.” The subtext is as clear in our time as it was in his: City living is an unnatural perversion of the simple, Edenic beauty found in the countryside. It’s a stereotypical notion of authenticity that persists. Everyone knows that when a politician invokes “traditional American values,” they’re referring to the folkways of small, heartland communities inhabited by the purported heirs of idealized yeoman farmers. The sense that our great cities play no part in defining our national character is practically taken for granted.
Ben Metcalf, the former literary editor for Harper’s magazine, is having none of it. He rejects “the conceit that one can look out over America’s hills and through her swamps and forests, and across her valleys and plains and deserts” and encounter the divine. “God,” he warns, “does not wait for us out in those trees.”
His debut novel, “Against the Country,” is a full-throated retort to those who dare romanticize rural life — a sprawling, relentless, and deeply pessimistic chronicle of the hardships and indignities one must endure when separated from “the uterine comforts of town.”
Though ostensibly fictional, the story tracks fairly close to Metcalf’s own biography. Ripped from a comfortable childhood in a southern Illinois town, the narrator is deposited, unwillingly, into Goochland Country, Va., “because his parents have agreed to pretend, with hippie and hick alike, that the countryside is an antidote to town and not a poor imitation of it.”
Though Metcalf is describing a late-’70s early-’80s Virginian childhood, his weighty, florid prose is Victorian in character, and he describes mundane things like his school bus with a vituperative intensity more commonly reserved for the fetid slums of a Dickens novel.
“When the great root below us inspired in Thomas Jefferson his idyllic hallucinations . . . did it bestow upon him a vision of the roving metal stomach that would, a century and change after his presidency, gobble up the nation’s schoolchildren by law each morning and vomit them into a freshly graveled parking lot?”
Metcalf’s hyperbolic style propels the first half of “Against the Country,” and succeeds in conveying both the depths of his disdain for his Goochland environs as well as his dark sense of humor. “I abhor blackberries,” says the narrator when considering the backbreaking labor his father demanded he perform on their shabby plot of land. “I would surely eradicate them if brought to power.”
He is beset on all sides by vulgar characters, who are not so much Southern Gothic as they are Southern grotesque — slack jawed and barely sentient, they are treated not as people but rather as manifestations of the county’s malevolence, alongside the wasps and snakes and thorns. The narrator paints them with the broadest strokes, as those who fancy “mud, pickup trucks, cowboy hats . . . and the legion twangs and whines of American ignorance.”
With no real plot to speak of, it’s the novelty of the narrator’s delivery that initially draws you in. But eventually, the overwrought descriptions of every meager detail begin to feel tedious, especially as the story shifts away from the absurdities of Goochland, and refocuses instead on the narrator and his relationship with his father in the book’s second half.
Metcalf gets lost in his own long, meandering sentences, and by the end of “Against the Country,” there’s no sense that where they’re headed was worth the effort it took to keep up with them. And the book’s early promise of dismantling the myth of the rural ideal is ultimately obscured by a fog of creative, yet hollow, invective.Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at mike@michaelpatrickbrady
.com, or follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.