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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

BOTTOM LINE: Just call it an ode to the Midwest

Genre: Fiction; Short Stories
Publication Date: 7 February 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state—the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets—an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation—the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing— but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town.

So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.”

My Thoughts: Reading Universal Harvester leaves no room for doubt that John Darnielle knows the Midwest. His lack of embellishment and overt action epitomizes the Midwest. The placid pacing of the story emphasizes the lack of urgency experienced in “flyover” country. His thoroughly unassuming and utterly forgettable main characters are good, salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners just looking to live their lives quietly, surrounded by family and community. It is as an accurate a portrait of modern-day Midwesterners as anything you will ever read.

Unfortunately, this means that for those readers who are not familiar with the slower pace of life alongside the lack of external emotion, the story is slow and uneventful. Nothing much actually happens. Jeremy does not conduct an investigation so much as assuage his fears. His main concern is for his manager of the video store and her growing withdrawal from society as well as for those appearing on the videos. Halfway through the novel, there is a shift in the narrative to a different family and a different time period. Mr. Darnielle states the connection between the past and present at the very beginning of the shift, but it still takes readers some time to understand the connection. As with Jeremy’s scenes, the past is seemingly uneventful, plodding along from day-to-day with little in the way of adventure or excitement.

Yet to dismiss this lack of action within Universal Harvester is to dismiss the heart of the novel. The Midwest is slow and quirky; it is most definitely not flashy. Midwesterners are not early adopters of technology or fashion; they typically do not seek out danger and adventure. Moreover, there is a fundamental lack of emotion that manifests itself as if people were burying their emotions. However, what Mr. Darnielle shows in the novel is that emotions may not be on the surface, but they are there and they run deep. They connect communities and are what drive the massive influx of food during times of crisis. These emotional depths are what keep people searching for lost loved ones decades after their disappearances and are what drives Jeremy to begin his research in the first place. There is such a thing as Midwestern niceness, and Universal Harvester shows exactly what that is.

In Universal Harvester, John Darnielle does not just set his novel in the heart of the country. His novel embodies the Midwestern spirit with its penchant for helping out the less fortunate. It also showcases the unassuming way in which Midwesterners face life – unflappable, hard-working, and able to accept the relentless march of time. Universal Harvester is as much an homage to Midwesterners as it is a mystery.

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