Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Best Book You've Never Read: The Lord of the Barnyard

"There was a point at which, after the Baker/Pottville melee had wound down with the last twenty or thirty handcuffed Soderbrook poultry-plant wetbacks, Buzzard's Roost Hessians, Dowler Street trolls, and east-side Baker factory rats being crammed into Sheriff Tom Dippold's departmental paddywagons and sent on their way to the overstuffed abattoirs at Keller & Powell, the trash fires along Main St. had been hosed down and blown apart amid the smoldering wreckage of Gingerbread row, the school gymnasium had been gassed and raided by a poorly equipped and this-side-of-flabbergasted outfit of regional deputies, the general looting along Geiger had tapered off, the 3rd and Poplar riot had been subdued, an outraged pack of coal-truck operators from Ebony Steed's reservoir number six had long-since paid its ill-fated reconciliatory midnight visit to the Patokah-side river rats in a barreling steam-roller procession of Dodge rams, and the rest of the community had become so far entombed in its own excrement that even Pottville 6's newscasters were having to admit Baker appeared to be awaiting the arrival of the four horsemen—there was a point at which, in the full-pitched midst of it all, every cognizant and functioning citizen left in Green County knew exactly who and what John Kaltenbrunner was all about."

Thus begins one of the best books you've never read, Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf; a paragraph long sentence introducing us to the protagonist of the novel. Eventually some canonizer will put a list together that goes something like this: Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Jay Gatsby, and John Kaltenbrunner.

Lord of the Barnyard is the story of agricultural virtuoso John Kaltenbrunner as he struggles against a society bent on destroying him. By eight Kaltenbrunner could manage an entire farm (including pedigree chickens) without any help from the outside world and this aptitude puts him beyond the normal constraints of society. Most of us need to hold down jobs to maintain ourselves, but Kaltenbrunner just needs a plot of land, and, as a result of his natural independence, every societal force available is used to destroy him. And the town of Baker, a segregated backwater, complete with the predatory Methodist Crones did just that... for a while.

Kaltenbrunner eventually returned, and just like with farming, he excelled at every single activity he was forced to endure, with the savages of circumstance and the strict hierarchy of Baker sending him back and forth between the unemployment agency and the next low-paying humiliation. He finally ends up as a garbage collector--the rung on the societal ladder above only the in-bred, malnourished, deformed, semi-nomadic river rats--and, as always excels at that too, finishing his routes in record time and completely restructuring the archaic route system to maximize efficiency. The boost in confidence, natural leadership, and organization skills that Kaltenbrunner brings to the garbage collectors helps them organize a strike to protest the constant humiliation they endure. The end result of the strike is the scene described in the novel's opening sentence.

Beyond its wheat-thresher-driven-at-110-mph style, erupting with humor and brilliance like an exploding grain silo, three major accomplishments distinguish the Lord of the Barnyard. One is that the book examines how a character trait that's assumed always to be positive, like perseverance, is actually non-normative, having both positive and negative effects. Another is that Egolf has combined Moby-Dick and Captain Ahab into a single hero, set, not against some equal force, but against the natural mediocrity and vulnerability of society. The third is that it is one of the few novels that engages America's agricultural heritage.

We're taught in school that we should persevere. Our nation was founded on sticking to impossible projects, and we should never give up on ours. Kaltenbrunner is an archetype of perseverance. Whatever task is set for him, no matter how challenging or degrading, he sticks to it until he has mastered it. But Kaltenbrunner isn't the only entity that sticks to things in Lord of the Barnyard. Baker sticks to its outdated, racist, classist, and just plain bigoted social structure despite an economic depression and a total lack of respect from the outside world and it is only when a flaming, stinking apocalypse envelops the town that there is a picometer of change. Therefore, it is not enough to persevere, one must persevere for the right reasons.

Kaltenbrunner sets himself on one of the biggest white whales available; the structure of society itself. He attempts to bend society into an actual meritocracy, where individuals are valued for the contributions they make to society and not through some antiquated social calculus. The result is what one would expect. But society has set its sights on Kaltenbrunner, hurling as many harpoons as it can find at him, as John presents a challenge to its fundamental legitimacy. In a sense, the mere presence of Kaltenbrunner is an affront to the workings of society, as the existence of the white whale is to the consciousness of Ahab.

Finally, the character of America was really forged, not on the river, or the ocean, or in a metropolis, but on the farm. The pioneers stampeding westward weren't risking their lives to found saloons and brothels; they were stampeding for farmland. The perseverance, frugality, and ingenuity central to the American character are survival techniques for the farmer a week from the nearest town. I can think of no other literary novel that truly engages America's agricultural heritage.

Lord of the Barnyard is intellectually and stylistically original and vibrant, with Egolf pushing the prose as far and as fast as it can go while challenging major assumptions about the American character. It's fun. It's hilarious. And John Kaltenbrunner is a great American hero.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sex and the City, c.1711

I've always loved the past. Growing up in Australia I was addicted to children's historical fiction by English writers like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease. I don't think American children read those books, but they're absolutely fantastic.When I was writing my Ph.D thesis about garbage in eighteenth-century London, I ended up feeling that the past was more familiar to me than the present.
I wanted to give other people that same feeling, and by writing a fun, sexy historical novel. I didn't want it to feel "olde" or antique -- I wanted it to read like a modern comedy of manners, a "Bridget Jones' Diary" happening three hundred years ago.
So when I started writing the Scandal of the Season I knew I had to find out what eighteenth-century dating was like, and I suspected that fashionable women in London in 1711 weren't so very different from the girls in "Sex and the City." The London of the early eighteenth century wasn't like the world of Jane Austen novels -- people hadn't yet started behaving well!
Women could receive male visitors in their bedrooms in the morning -- in fact it was fashionable to do so. Couples could travel together in carriages with the windows shades down, and get up to all sorts of mischief. Men and women met in restaurants, at masquerade balls, bath-houses and public assemblies, and could behave more or less however they wanted to. Affairs were very common both for men and women -- married people took lovers so frequently it was considered more or less a matter of course among fashionable Londoners. Rich widows were especially desirable on the dating scene. They had their own houses, they were independent and respectable, and they could entertain male guests whenever they wanted.
Men often arranged to meet prostitutes and other "low" women in the bath-houses of London; it was equally common for a man to pick up a prostitute in his carriage on a street corner, drive around the block a few times and then let her out again.
Masquerade balls were all the rage because people were entirely disguised. It was not uncommon for a man to enter into an affair with a woman thinking that she was from the upper classes, only to discover that she was a whore dressed to look like
a duchess. In 1724, a London newspaper wrote that, “fishes are caught with hooks, birds are ensnared with nets, but virgins with masquerades.”
I realized that Alexander Pope had all of this in mind when he wrote his poem "The Rape of the Lock" -- about the fashionable, wealthy "bright young things" in early eighteenth-century London. It was exactly the world I wanted to write about, and so my first novel came into being.
People often ask me whether the sex scenes and the dating behavior and the dirty words in my novel are historically accurate -- they assume they're not. But that's because we're used to BBC adaptations of Austen. This is a very different world, 100 years earlier. It's much more like our own -- sexually free, disorderly, uncontrolled -- and therefore very risky for women who are trying to make their fortunes by marrying well. All these ideas are there in "The Scandal of the Season," which made it a very exciting book to write.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Buzz

Recently, I found a galley on the shelves in the back of the store. Maureen Dowd wrote about this upcoming book in the New York Times, so I took it home to read. Called American Wife and written by Curtis Sittenfeld, the acclaimed author of Prep, this powerful novel tells the story of Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren) a normal and average Wisconsin girl until tragedy strikes. Eventually, Alice meets and marries Charlie Blackwell who comes from a prominent politically connected WASP family. He turns out to be nothing more than a spoiled rich frat boy with a drug and drinking problem until he finds God and is born again. He runs for office and soon enough Alice Blackwell finds herself the First Lady of the Land, a destiny that goes well beyond her, and our, expectations. If this all sounds familiar, it should. I wonder if Laura Bush will read this book? It's getting a lot of attention and will be published in September.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Interview with Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian's "Why Antichrist?" was one of the best short stories of last year and it is being released in his new short story collection A Better Angel. This is Adrian's third book and he's already carved out a sizeable spot for himself in landscape of American letters (which I would guess he does in his spare time, because he is also a pediatrician and pursuing his master's at the Harvard Divinity School.) His second book The Children's Hospital was a massive retelling of the great flood that broached a moral spectrum most writers shy away from. Here is an interview with him in the current issue of Bookslut: Chris Adrian Interview.
Joan Wickersham, author of The Suicide Index, was recently awarded a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and will be speaking here at the bookstore tomorrow, Thursday 8/7, at 7 pm. A link to the Council's blog is included here,, where you will find an interview with Joan about, among other things, her use of an index "structure" to tell the story of her father's suicide. Please plan to be on hand to hear Joan for yourself. It will be memorable.

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