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.

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