#30Authors is an annual event connecting readers, authors, and bloggers. Throughout the month of September, 30 authors review their favorite books on 30 blogs in 30 days. The event has been met with incredible support from and success within the literary community. In the six months following the event’s inaugural launch, the concept was published as an anthology by Velvet Morning Press (Legacy: An Anthology). Started by The Book Wheel, #30Authors remains active throughout the year and you can join in the fun by following along on Twitter at @30Authors, using the hashtag, #30Authors, or purchasing the anthology. To learn more about the event and to see the full schedule, please click here.
#30Authors Review: Against the Country by Ben Metcalf
Like many reviewers of fiction, I will perform the following without the benefit of the text itself, having managed to misplace my copy of Ben Metcalf’s masterful, convention-shattering, epoch-defining, Against the Country somewhere in the tetrised boxes of a recent move. Unlike many reviewers of fiction, I have actually read the book I intend to laud or lambast. Thankfully Metcalf’s novel is so jammed with glittering examples of the English sentence taken to its tonal, structural, imagistic, and intellectual apex, that I filled a pocket notebook with choice lines.
Against the Country is just that, ostensibly the narrator’s attempt to annihilate our dearly-held national notion of the countryside as inherently good, by means of an account of his childhood with a family removed from a Midwestern town to the rural Virginia country of Goochland, in the narrator’s eyes a hellscape “actively, and perhaps even knowingly, involved in our doom.” For this retreat into the blighted hinterland, the blame passes from well-meaning or delusional parents to the cardinal sinner, Thomas Jefferson, “with his comfortable slaver’s dream of an agrarian wonderland and his criminal transfer of public funds to the Napoleonic war effort so as to avail us of the hectares needed to prove that dream a nightmare.” In a passage exemplary of Metcalf’s virtuosity of style and substance, additional blame is laid to E.B. White, “who prompted the rich to believe that a weekend retreat in the country qualified them for the position of calm rustic sage, and every back-to-the-land hippie who managed to further this absurd idea with his inheritance-funded commune, only to suggest something truer with his California killing spree.”
I might as well say here and now that if you are among the adherents to the literary pact between tedious introspective Euro-spartanity and the American conflation of plainness with honesty you’d best avoid this book. Tone-deaf Puritans who accuse writers of being writerly and harbor some insecurity-steeped colonial version of the Etonian ideal (effortless excellence, or excellence without the appearance of effort) will likely be struck dead by the ferocity of Metcalf’s prose and the complexity of his constructions. And to stay the limp sabers of those selfsame proponents of simplicity, Against the Country is no absurd confection of insubstantial embellishment; Metcalf tells harsher truths (On guns: “which apparently don’t kill people themselves, but arrive now and then armed with deadly children”) sears more brutally beautiful scenes into the reader’s consciousness in a single perfectly constructed chapter—on, say, the armed robbery of a school bus by our narrator or the sorry circumstances of said narrator’s first, beer-soaked kiss—than the biggest pseudo-badass author (in prose described along the lines of a middleweight fighter: spare, hard, taut, terse) can muster in an entire lean, mean novel. Drama here is not to be found in the standard avenues of plot, but the narrator’s deepening understanding of his flawed and tragic family, which grows more fully realized with every lashing by land and life, until the reader is left are just as raw and wasted.
And now I must bring this review to a close, due in no small part to the discovery of a family of dogs huddled beneath my porch. A fitting enough end to a review of a novel which itself ends with dogs, and, to be fair, Jackie the tabby and the legendary Buttfucker the rooster—think Faulkner’s appendix to The Sound and the Fury, if it were about the Compson’s pets. In this final chapter, as he does throughout, Metcalf manages to plant laughs by way of gut-shots, reference and yet transcend literary convention, and, with the incandescent brilliance of his thought and language, light the way ahead.
So, a pronouncement: I fully believe that, as did Ulysses, its forebear in grand prolixity and simultaneous destabilization and codification of national identity, Against the Country will become first a bible for a devout cadre of obsessives, leading to later justified canonical enshrinement. It’s that good, that important.
A native of the Gulf south, Kent Wascom attended Louisiana State University and received an MFA from Florida State University. He was awarded the 2012 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for Fiction. He is the author of The Blood of Heaven (2013), and the forthcoming Secessia (July 2015).
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