Against the Country” is a new novel, or something like it, by Ben Metcalf, the well-known former literary editor at Harper’s Magazine. With chops like those and the book’s setting outside of Richmond, you might expect an appealing read. Not this time. Metcalf’s effort is a string of hopelessly long sentences slapped together in unformed chapters that spit out bile, venom and little else.
It’s basically a diatribe against his parents, especially his father. They were hippies who became advocates of the “back to the country” movement of the 1970s, when they lived in rural Southern Illinois where Metcalf was born. For reasons that go unexplained, they pack up their brood when Metcalf is young and settle just west of Richmond in Goochland County.
Metcalf’s father finds a drafty, dilapidated country house that he tries unsuccessfully to heat with a Franklin stove. The driveway consists of two ruts in red clay. Dad insists on hooking up a basketball hoop somewhere because he’s from the Midwest, Metcalf explains.
Metcalf absolutely hates Goochland, which he pummels for the better part of 328 pages. Goochland has a “paper-thin infrastructure” with “ a backwater school system, a sparse and unselective police force, a farmer’s bank, a ‘community’ college, an overmatched clinic near the pompous little courthouse, a bloom of schismatic churches, an enthusiasm of volunteer fire and rescue squads, both a men’s and women’s ‘state farm’ … .”
Richmond fares no better, being “suited primarily to wealthy people able to tolerate the boredom and tastelessness and humidity that account for most of the culture there,” he writes.
I have nothing against sarcasm provided that it’s done well and offers even a little compassion. Metcalf fails on both counts.
On the first of many long, despised days that he has to ride on a country school bus, he’s beat up by an overweight black boy. Apparently Metcalf sat in the wrong section of the vehicle: “This ain’t slavery days no more,” his assailant screams again and again. The incident apparently is supposed to underline a major cultural point but I miss it. Other snippets include a stock car driver whose eyes are gouged out during a race, teenage sex and hanging out at a McDonald’s and Hardee’s near Regency Square Mall.
None of these portraits is well drawn, but a number of reviewers from national publications, perhaps out of respect for Metcalf, have cast them as examples of southern gothic in the tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. One overreaching reviewer mistakenly describes Goochland County as being fictitious, presumably like Faulkner’s made-up Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. The reviewer later had to run a correction.
Like Faulkner, Metcalf writes sentences that are extremely long but are nowhere close in quality. By the time I get to the end of them, I can’t remember the beginning.
The author’s free-form, essaylike structure might be appealing to some. One enthusiastic critic at National Public Radio went as far to say that Metcalf had created a new way of writing that can take on “Jefferson, Thoreau, the church, patriotism, race relations, sexual identity, J.D. Salinger, the myth of America and a thousand other targets without shaking itself completely to pieces.”
So guided, I tried to give the book a second read.
My opinion doesn’t change. S