Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Against the Country

7. Against the Country by Ben Metcalf



Ben Metcalf's Against the Country is a novel distinguished by two attributes: its virulent attitude toward untamed terra firma and its excessive use of parentheses. On both counts, it is entertaining, but not as deep as its elevated vocabulary and precise punctuation might suggest. The editor, however, and/or the author, are to be highly commended on the appropriate if ample use of commas, semicolons, colons, and the aforementioned parentheses. Footnotes are, mercifully, contained, if not brief. Popularly compared to southern Gothic, Metcalf's narrator has at least a superior reliability to most of Faulkner's, and the prevailing mood, while depressing, does not quite reach the lugubrious depths of O'Connor. It's a book I suspect many raised in the country could relate to, if they were not likely to be outdone by the aforementioned vocabulary. At any rate, it encourages the rest of us to remain, if not happily, more safely ensconced in our ivy towers (or suburban homes, as the case may be).

An (uncharacteristically brief) but otherwise representative passage below *WARNING FOR USE OF OFFENSIVE EPITHET*:

My father was greatly concerned in those years that I might turn out to be a faggot, though only marginally more so than my mother seemed to be, the two of them sharing, through the auspices of my mother's work with juvenile offenders (and my father's long congress with tool-belted speed freaks), a perfectly common suspicion that the root cause of all deviation from the familial norm, and certainly of all "attention-seeking behavior" was bound to be drug use, and beneath that, a latent homosexuality.
(p.128)

If sentences like these are your delight, and country ignorance and the search for escape thereof are your cup of tea, have at it. I enjoyed toiling with the lexicon myself, and found the subject matter surprisingly bearable, if only due to the narrator's histrionic disdain for it. Beyond that though, I found it offered little beyond the excesses of hatred. I would have appreciated a more nuanced examination of the issues the narrator faced, or hints at a solution or redemption. It's being billed as a novel about rural America, which it is, but it felt more personal than epic in nature.

The promotional material I received asks: "Was there ever a narrator, in all our literature, so precise, so far-reaching, so eloquently misanthropic, as the one encountered here?"

To that, I would say Curtis Sittenfeld's Lee Fiora easily fits those criteria, I'll give Metcalf's narrator a boost though for "eloquence" (as he tries so very hard), but take him down a notch on "far-reaching."

Other narrators that fit the criteria come to your mind? (Please don't say Holden Caulfield).

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

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