Many readers will be fooled initially into thinking that "Limits of the Land" is sort of rural soap-opera. A middleaged farmer named August suddenly learns that his sister-in-law, a manic-depressive named Winnie, has just been reduced to a "a heap of charred rags" in what seems to have been a kerosene-lamp accident but smells like suicide or perhaps even murder. Winnie died, we soon learn, while trying to castrate her ex-convict husband, who by now has fled to California, leaving a pregnant mistress behind. As if all this weren't bad enough. August had big troubles of his own: an incestuously-inclined daughter who hears voices and is given to titanic adolescent tantrums; a wife who after a hysterectomy must soon endure a double mastectomy, an operation for cervical cancer, a malfunctioning kidney and a stroke which paralyzes her left side. Her n me is Maureen and her total health picture, combined with a Pentacostal fervoe which drives her to read the Bible aloud at bedtime, renders her a somewhat doubtful candidate for sexual relations, at least in her husband's estimation. In a convenient turn of even ts, he unexpectedly meets his brother-in-law's abandoned mistress, once characterized by Winnie as "a peroxide blonde whore." You know the type.
The encounter between August and the woman takes place in the very room where Winnie died, and it is in this scene that Harnack tips his hand, signaling all but the goofiest reader that black laughter is in order. The sight of the blond so inflames the sex-starved farmer that he is barely able to refrain from committing rape on the spot. In his consternation he manages to knock over a kersene lamp and at the same moment becomes aware of Winnie's ghost behind him. He then suffers and apparent heart attack, steals the blond's car, and flees the scene as the house burns to the ground. All this is doubtless symbolic of the conflagration that sex sometimes is. In any case it all happens on one page and there seems no other choice but to begin laughing, blackly, or at least bleakly. As August himself observes, "Lord, what a fix!"
Happily though, the blond escapes the fire and seduces him; and things are going along first-rate until she arranges a flashbulb-blackmail surprise as he is enjoying her five-months-pregnant favors for the first time. A rather stoic fellow in the farmer tradition, he settles into a double life, paying the blackmail without too much of a fuss and even managing to grow fond of his brother-in-law's baby.
With one or two exceptions the characters are wholly unsympathetic -- at least that is August's view of them, and one naturally assumes that the author feels the same way. August desribes his neighbors as taking a ghoulish interest in death; family men are presumed to be philanderers on no apparent evidence; even the local dogs are seen as vicious. But then, these hilariously sour country folk are "geared to the primal turnings," and certainly an impressive number of primals get turned in Kaleburg, Iowa, throughout World War II.
Things take a turn for the better after the war, however -- not including Maureen who by now has terminal everything ("I could drive you to the Mayo Clinic," August helpfully suggests). The daughter, in a final spasmodic farewell to adolescence, pours a container of buttered popcorn over her head at the picture show, but pulling herself together soon after, gets a job in a popcorn factory, becomes captain of the girl's basketball team and generally makes her old dad swell with pride if not concupiscence.
The novel does contain a lapse or two. One is the brief appearance of a canny oldster called Uncle ejaper for whom Harnack displays a certain affection and respect; this is disconcerting only because there is no hint of respect or affection for anyone else in the story. A slightly more serious problem is that August insists on narrating the story to the reader directly. It is as though we are all listening in on a giant party line; and some of the less sensitive readers may wonder why he is telling us all this in the firse place, or even if they ought not to hang up real quick. The reviewer of course did not have the latter option.