Among the many myths we Americans dutifully accept as integral parts of our national heritage, one of the most pernicious has been the belief that country life is somehow purer, less corrupted, and more desirable than city life, the truest reflection of the hard-spun values and industrious spirit gifted to us through the generations by the Founders. This pervasive canard, which has persisted for centuries and entrenched itself into our culture and politics, finally meets its match with the unnamed narrator of Ben Metcalf’s brilliantly perverse debut Against the Country (2015).
Billed as a novel, this book is more aptly described as an unshackled rant, a largely plotless jeremiad detailing at great length its protagonist’s myriad, all-consuming resentments toward the rural farm life he suffered through. It is as committed a performance of incandescent fury as modern literature has produced — and as funny — written in tidal waves of verbosity that recall both a dramatic 19th-century sermon and the unsettlingly lucid delusions of a madman.
What plot there is concerns itself with the years after the narrator’s father, for reasons his embittered son never quite works out, uprooted him, his mother, and his two siblings from the relative comforts of Southern Illinois (referred to drolly as “Town”) to the impoverished farmland of Goochland, Virginia (a real county, apparently), where a dark comedy of humiliation and subjugation to the land awaits them all.
Here is how the novel begins:
I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications.
That bracing but thrilling first sentence only gives you scant indication of how intricate and ornate the prose becomes (a better example is quoted below). You’ll barely get through one syntactically-nightmarish complaint before another torrent of florid invective is unleashed at another subject. The only concession Metcalf makes for us is by dividing these volcanic riffs into seven books, each consisting of about a dozen two- to four-page chapters (with coy titles such as “For those still keeping track”), allowing us much-needed breathers.
Such subjects include, but are hardly limited to: blackberries, corn, chickens (“prissy influenzas on feet”), rats, ticks, snakes, wasps, his teachers (“bearded mediocrities”), and the daily horror of school buses (“a roving metal stomach that would…gobble up the nation’s schoolchildren by law each morning and vomit them into a freshly graveled parking lot”), which culminates in the book’s most memorable and vividly rendered sequence.
One of his first broadsides gets launched at the “idyllic hallucinations” of “accomplices” such as Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Emerson, and Thoreau, the frontier figures that created and propagated the Edenic notion of country life that duped his family and enslaved the narrator in a back-breaking childhood of backwoods despair:
That we chose to head south, though, is a blow no God who retained even the smallest affection for His American subjects would have dealt us, and that we settled in so useless a stretch of the kudzu is a masterstroke no combination of Jeffersons could feasibly have arranged. I must therefore conclude, as I was moved at least to suspect during my long years of exile from town, that the land itself, and especially the land of the Virginia Piedmont, wooded and weed-choked and encased in hard red clay where we had been led to expect some semblance of topsoil, was actively, and perhaps even knowingly, involved in our doom.
Frequently calling the narrative we hold in our hands as his “attempt to end all this” — “this” ostensibly being the adult narrator’s reckoning with his checkered childhood before it finally consumes him, a breakdown that manifests itself in the far less coherent second half — the narrator saves plenty of vitriol for his abusive and almost mythic father:
My father was by then a teacher, the builder in him having so gleefully demolished his spine that some years prior he, or my mother, had resolved that he should seek out and win a certificate, of all things, that would enable him to teach English and mathematics to the delinquents at her recent place of employment, thereafter his, which decision would condemn us all to a belief on his part that he had mastered not only words and numbers now but also psychology, since psychology was what presumably caused all those pimply-dicked offenders to grow agitated by the semi-confident drone of his voice (as we all had), and to question his legendarily cornfed but actually television-gorged machismo (as we all had), and to throw their books into the air (as I did myself on more than one occasion) and try to make it out of his classroom, whereupon they found themselves tackled by his bulk and inherent hatred of them (a legal maneuver, he was forever at pains to point out, since the courts’ recognition of his right to employ restraint-type violence against a fed-up JD clearly forgave, and by Benthamesque sliding scale even sanctioned, his more extreme and less rational violence against us), after which these potential “runners” were “held down” and “reasoned with” until a “group meeting” could be called to address the “issues” beneath the “acting out” (never his, mind you, the issues or the acting out), which would (for want of imagination, or for want of language, which is anyway the same thing) be boiled down into an unresolved homosexuality (admittedly an overworked theme here, though only insofar as it was there) or, or and, a failure to acknowledge (not merely to recognize but finally to accept) an adult’s prerogative to dominate a child for whatever reason the adult saw fit to claim. Which is all anyone needs to know about psychology and the law.
There is no question that 300 pages of this is both exhausting and torturous. It demands total concentration and in some cases, multiple readings that don’t always justify it. Sympathetic characters number zero. And as his narrative chugs along, grievance piled on top of clause-ridden grievance, the narrator begins adopting more formally postmodern and obfuscatory techniques, including fourth-wall breaks and parenthetical asides embedded three or four times within each other, rendering his account all but unreadable (I admit that a sequence in the fifth book describing the father’s opinions of J.D. Salinger fully conquered me). That said, every time Metcalf threatened to lose me in the page-long sentences, the lit-theory gamesmanship, or out of simple fatigue, his narrator snapped me back with his singularly demented voice.
While I find myself enthusiastically recommending Against the Country as the first great read of 2015, unlike any other book we are likely to encounter this year, it’s hard to love something that resists every advance of emotional connection you try to make with it. But I loved the three days I spent in the company of this family and their unforgettable world, and I love its author’s chutzpah to portray it without compromise.