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Universal Harvester: A gathering of universal truths

Image courtesy of Macmillan Audio


Just a bit past two years since breaking onto the author scene with National Book Award-winning Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), frontman of The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, is back with his sophomore book writing effort, titled, Universal Harvester (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).

Starting with the fancifully-colorful cover that reflects shaded blends akin to runny oil found under the occasional car in parking lots, and continuing to the publisher bestowed plot summary mentioning “jagged, poorly lit home video” being found on seemingly random movies – initially copies of Targets and She’s All That – rented from a small video store in the middle America town of Nevada (pronounced Neh-VAY-duh), Iowa, Universal Harvester comes on hard and fast with intrigue boosted by its innocent backdrop of a setting. The book then doubles down on pre-read build up via quiet town happenstance, through central protagonist, 22-year old Jeremy Heldt, who is a staple employee of the independent Video Hut store, from where the hacked films in question, come to be found.

Beginning in brief and then opening up to give the book its due, what’s presented at the forefront of Universal Harvester is not what ends up being its primary driving force; no matter how much things might seem to the contrary. A small town mystery revolving around unsettling and intermittently brutal video footage being discovered in the middle of otherwise normal films, practically grabs onlookers by the collar – both in and outside of the story – and demands attention be paid to this organic enigma that stands at the crossroads of Unsolved Mysteries and The Ring.

No, Darnielle decided not to go what would have been a very understandable route – giving readers a perfectly linear plot from point A to point B. Jeremy, who is the unfortunate, front line recipient of the news surrounding the problematic tapes in Video Hut, starts out wanting to pay virtually no mind to what customers have brought to his attention but upon witnessing undeniably vitriolic scenes that contend to keep him awake at night following their observation, the shock and discomfort of not knowing permeate from Jeremy to his job supervisor, Sarah Jane and beyond.



This sounds like the point where anyone, present company included, would be knee deep in the book and ready to see where the tapes lead. Yet, this is where the book takes its foot off the footage accelerator and literally changes perspective. Written in four parts, Universal Harvester simultaneously weaves and unravels its tale with a combination of traditional third person narration and an unquestioned, (mostly) unidentified first person. Then, on top of that, the book jumps between the present (in this case, the late 1990s through to the early 2000s) and the past. Furthermore, even when contained within a particular point of view and a defined period of time, Darnielle breaks the fourth wall often, referencing how parts of the story might have gone if certain parts are to be believed as true, false, having never happened, or having happened differently (…None of this is true. Or maybe some of it is. I don’t know.).

If this arrangement feels confusing and intimidating, that’s justifiable to a degree. While not a long read, (in the case of audiobook format, only a little over five hours time), Universal Harvester is not a book meant for reading or listening while one’s mind is elsewhere. This isn’t solely due to an assortment of writing techniques or due to some excess of pedantic verbiage but is due to the heart of what make up the book’s actual core of importance: time, grief, memories, and personal introspection.

Darnielle’s delivery of the story in audiobook format adds to the impact of these themes, as his reserved and steady narration emphasizes the idea of careful, deliberate thought over adrenaline flooded recitation. The short musical interludes played between various parts of the book add an extra layer of non-verbal support to the mood of the book, as piano, guitar, drum, and synth arrangements contribute distorted, minor, and ominous, or sprightly and upbeat intermissions, depending on the state of the plot.

“Even if you’re all grown up, the sound of a parent’s voice calling you awake you from sleep can make you feel like a child. Like there’s somebody who wants to make sure all’s well with you; who cares enough to ask.”

Jeremy and his father Steve are brought into the story sans mother and wife respectively, as she passed six years prior in a car crash. The introduction of a crucial character later in the story, one who exists outside of sleepy Nevada, is also without a mother. However, unlike Steve and Jeremy, this loss is one tethered to a gaping hole lacking closure of finality. Throughout the book, readers get to know a handful of Nevada’s residents on a personal level, as they navigate the crossroads of their lives over the book’s multi-year long escapades. Those who didn’t grow up in a part of rural America or an otherwise small town, can get a sense of what it means to feel frustrated by the sometimes stagnant nature of living in a place where everyone knows everything you’ve experienced in your life. The fact that Universal Harvester mixes this with the millennium’s crossroads in time and technology – ushering in the diminishment of places like Video Hut with the emergence of digital media – is a clever juxtaposition in literary movement but along with Darnielle’s style of writing, this is where it becomes clear the story is not meant to be the rushing thriller projected at the outset. Darnielle’s style of writing instead lends itself to a descriptiveness, and accompanying inclusion of emotional implications, that give off plain but poetic airs and support a steady approach:

Nevada [Iowa] is the 26th best small town in America. It has soil testing labs, water testing labs [and] a high school football team. [T]here’s a little espresso and cappuccino place just outside of downtown: Java Time. People shoot movies on sound stages and try to make it look like Nevada but the claustrophobia they’re trying to invoke is more native to a place like Crescent, whose length you can walk in a day.”

Once the subtleties of Universal Harvester’s themes become the focus of reader reflection, rather than the surface premise of a B-movie thriller, the true strength in the story bursts forth. Death and loss are so prominent in this book that they themselves are almost independent characters. Still, any one character’s particular loss isn’t thrust over readers’ heads repeatedly – at least not in straightforward, blunt terms. Rather, little things, like remembering grief stricken acts or sources of routine comfort that are common places of respite for those left behind stand at this post. Steve’s turning to a particular comfort food and the succinct but poignant explanation behind why it mattered, stands out as an example of indirect, but no less impressive, impact.

They’d had chicken Alfredo with noodles. By now, [Steve] could make it without having to read the instructions on the jar. He turned to chicken Alfredo when he wanted to feel secure.”

“That’s what pictures are for after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind. To bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed.” – Universal Harvester

Such moments, as banal as they might appear to some, are laden with emotional intimacy and personal connection that, anyone who has lost someone and clung to a tradition in the wake of that trauma, will likely find endearing. Ultimately, where Universal Harvester chooses to withdraw from its horror-inspired origins, it instead flourishes in highlighting – by way of metaphors referencing various forms of media, which ties in with the transition of the decades – the significance of histories both individual and collective, alongside the delicate and easily affected, but ever invaluable threads of lineage that follow us throughout our lives. The subsequent distance of these pathways are then determined by one’s own interest and willingness, or not, to keep them.



Universal Harvester is out now via Farrar, Straus, and Giroux publishing.
Find hardcover, audio, and e-book editions of the book through Macmillan.

John Darnielle is currently on a tour across the US promoting Universal Harvester. Dates and information for remaining stops on the the tour are below:

Universal Harvester Book Tour
2/8/17 – Cambridge, MA
Brattle Theatre, presented by Harvard Book Store
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
6:00 p.m.
Tickets and more information… 

2/9/17 – Washington, D.C.
Politics and Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
7:00 p.m.
More information… 

2/13/17 – Durham, NC
Motorco Music Hall, presented by The Regulator Bookshop
723 Rigsbee Avenue
Durham, NC 27701
7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information… 

2/15/17 – Raleigh, NC
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road
Raleigh, NC 27609
7:00 p.m.
More information…

2/20/17 – Seattle, WA
Town Hall Seattle, with The Elliott Bay Book Company
1119 Eighth Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
7:30 p.m.
More information…

2/21/17 – Portland, OR
Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
3415 SW Cedar Hills Boulevard
Beaverton, OR 97005
7:00 p.m.
More information…

2/22/17 – San Francisco, CA
The Booksmith
1644 Haight Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
7:00 p.m.
Tickets and more information… 

2/23/17 – Los Angeles, CA
Skylight Books
1818 North Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
7:30 p.m.
More information… 

2/25/17 – Austin, TX
603 North Lamar Boulevard
Austin, TX 78703
6:00 p.m.
More information… 

2/27/17 – Iowa City, IA
Prairie Lights
15 South Dubuque Street
Iowa City, IA 52240
7:00 p.m.
More information… 

2/28/17 – Ames, IA
Ames Public Library, with the Iowa State University Book Store
515 Douglas Avenue
Ames, IA 50010
6:30 p.m.
More information… 

3/1/17 – Chicago, IL
Lincoln Hall, presented by Unabridged Bookstore
2424 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614
7:00 p.m.
Tickets and more information… 

3/30/17 – Charlotte, NC
McColl Center for Art + Innovation
721 North Tryon Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
8:00 p.m.
Tickets and more information…

Find The Mountain Goats at their official website and these social media platforms:

Twitter (@mountain_goats)

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