Universal Harvester

Author: John Darnielle

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2017

I read it: March 2017

universal harvester

I remember a small video store in Marshalltown called Tan ‘N Tapes. I remember the carpet and how it seemed to be the source of the peculiar smell. The smell was one of mystery and is forever tied with genres best left alone. I remember peeking at the covers of horror movies and being vaguely fascinated yet ultimately disgusted. I remember finding movies on a whim that became favorites, and others whose cases I looked at a dozen times but for some reason never asked my parents to rent. The next-size-up store that my family went to was out by the mall: Freedom Video. It, too, featured tanning beds. Why were those two services such a standard pairing?

The Video Hut in John Darnielle’s novel doesn’t seem to feature a tanning option, but it’s the type of standalone place that would align with my old Tan ‘N Tapes. The story is set in the late ’90s when these stores could be contrasted with the larger chains, like Hollywood Video. This is a strange fact of the times, but I suppose the difference in businesses was indeed there. Now, any rental store still standing is a relic, be it a local place or a national chain. Are they limping by on DVD rentals?

It’s no accident that the title Universal Harvester evokes farming and rural ways. The action starts in Nevada, Iowa (“he intoned the long initial a in Nevada with relish: it takes outsiders forever to get over it”) and encompasses several surrounding communities. Darnielle’s specificity means that for someone like me, each familiar reference offers a jolt of excitement. Here’s a mention of Highway 30, there’s the character getting Taco John’s. Plenty of Ames and Des Moines. Casey’s gas station, Lincoln Highway, Marshalltown. Even the name of the company where my grandfather worked and retired from: Lennox.

The first part of the book is about a young man stumbling into a mystery about some of the rental tapes being spliced with disturbing home footage. He lives with his dad and lost his mom in a car accident, so the story explores the grief of the two men. The mood and angle here resemble the weight of similar domestic devastations in Wolf in White Van. Throughout, Darnielle maintains the urge to describe the area and its people, such as a smile “that few outside the region will ever master, a no-problems look that paves over rough road without making any big deal about it.” The middle section leans even harder into this regional observation, shifting to explore the origin of the woman responsible for the bizarre footage, Lisa Sample. This story of small-town upbringing and family architecture feels like The Good Divide, with the author describing “the engine of simple social obligation humming along at its audible Midwestern frequency.”

But the keen observations about Midwesterners and the dropping of place names might not be enough to carry the book. There is a central mystery that tie multiple characters together, but the narrative never lingers quite long enough in any one place. It swings from broad commentary on a Darnielle obsession (geography, film, religion) to a video store clerk in the present day, to a working father in a previous generation, with some jarring asides. These narrative intrusions might be the book’s greatest faults: exploratory what-if scenarios where the narrator sketches how something might have been, which route a life could have taken.

The effect might be intended as poetic, but I fear it makes the book mirror the pile of VHS tapes that the characters discover and can’t draw their eyes away from. The scenes are there but things are spliced all wrong. By the end I’d mixed up my Jeremy and my James, Stephanie and Sarah Jane. These particular characters may not stick with me for long, though the sense of place probably will (and I’m just a few highways away at this time). But overall, the film either needs to pan out and become the long serial drama it hints at, or focus way in to follow a single character with a handheld camera through a horror storyline. And I still think it may have been improved had it featured aliens.

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