John Darnielle, founder of the Mountain Goats, writes lyrics so meticulously crafted, so arcing and literary, that they can feel like novellas set to music. His indie rock and folk songs take on subjects dangerously prone to caricature — aspiring death-metal rockers, masked wrestlers, spiritual seekers — yet he renders them in nuanced and empathetic ways. You’re going to feel something when you listen to his performances even if you struggle to understand the meaning of his sophisticated tales.
Darnielle’s raw, sometimes unsettling observations of the world lose none of their power on the printed page. He demonstrates this in his new novel, “Universal Harvester,” a captivating exploration of the vagaries of memory and inertia in middle America. The book, which should further establish Darnielle as a writer of note, serves as a stellar encore after the success of his debut novel, “Wolf in White Van,” which was longlisted for a National Book Award in 2014.
Darnielle places “Universal Harvester” in Nevada, Iowa, where a sign out on the highway boasts of its designation as “the 26th best small town in America.” Something spooky is happening in Nevada: Disturbing scenes are mysteriously being spliced into the films that customers rent at the local Video Hut. Jeremy, a clerk at the video store, is reluctantly tugged into the search for the provenance of these altered films, a quest that becomes an unhealthy obsession for the store owner.
Jeremy is 22 and lives with his father. He knows there’s no future in working as a video store clerk, especially with the big chains cutting into the business, but he’s stalled in life, unsure of his next move. Under stress, he assumes a kind of “disguise, the one he was born with, that made him look and sound like a man on the other side of middle age who didn’t have any use for conversation.”
As the novel progresses, Darnielle reveals glimpses of the troubling images appearing on films as varied in style and tone as “Targets,” a 1968 Peter Bogdanovich thriller starring Boris Karloff, and “She’s All That,” a silly teen romantic comedy from 1999. The odd scenes spliced into those films include a shot that appears to show a trembling woman inside a shed with a canvas bag over her head. Those fragmented snippets call to mind the way Darnielle later describes how a car passenger sees cornfields as they “flicker against the window like stock footage” and cast “shadows in between the rows.”
“A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence,” Darnielle writes. “To make yourself heard, you’d need something substantial: the roar of the combine harvester in autumn, mowing all of this to the ground.”
Darnielle lived for a time in Iowa. In his book, the state is less a backdrop than a vital character, a place where “the wind comes across the plains not howling but singing. It’s the difference between this wind and its big-city cousins: the full-throated wind of the plains has leeway to seek out the hidden registers of its voice.”
If Darnielle had confined “Universal Harvester” to untangling the story of the altered films, he would have written a perfectly acceptable creepy mystery. Instead, he produces a much richer work that — without giving away too much — takes a long pause from the video mystery to delve into a poignant, multigenerational saga of religious obsession and its shattering consequences.
Religion has been a recurrent theme in Darnielle’s work. In 2009, he released the album “The Life of the World to Come” with 12 songs based on “hard lessons” he said he’d learned from Bible verses. In “Universal Harvester,” Darnielle pushes the reader to challenge notions about the practice of religion, its role in our lives and the space in which we seek to commune with a higher power. “What do you see in your head?” the narrator asks as the narrative veers into the church where Irene Sample, a mother searching for a new connection with her faith, goes to pray. “Are there candles? Stations of the cross?”
None of these exist in the storefront church next to an Army surplus shop where Irene challenges her own notions of religious practices and where she will make a fateful decision that changes her family’s life forever. The man at the lectern has an untrimmed beard, dirt beneath his fingernails and filthy tan pants. But he touches something deep inside her.
Beneath the eerie gauze of this book, I felt an undercurrent of humanity and hope. Fans of Darnielle’s prolific musical portfolio have a habit of trying to unpack his lyrics, searching for the message in the words he sings in that cracked and imperfect and jarringly honest voice. Look closely enough at “Universal Harvester,” and you’ll find the same layers of meaning. At their core, his characters are seekers. What moves them forward is that they believe they’ll find something. Something worthwhile. Something they need.
By John Darnielle
Farrar Straus Giroux. 214 pp. $25