Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Against the Country: A Novel

The first-person narrator of Ben Metcalf’s Against the County is ticked off, and he wants to make sure that you, the reader, understands just exactly how ticked off he is.  He hates living in the country, certainly never wanted to spend his childhood there, and blames Goochland County, Virginia, for pretty much every bad thing that has ever happened in his life. 

Metcalf, in fact, effectively sets the tone of Against the Country with the book’s very first sentence (a sentence that is typical of the style and structure used throughout the book):

            “I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to a climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications in town.”

And, yes, our narrator is not just ticked off at Goochland County; this is a man who still hates his parents for having moved him to such a remote, poverty stricken area in the first place.  But all of us, if we survive the process, eventually will come of age, and in the long run, that is what happens to our unhappy narrator.  Now he wants to share with us all the details of that horrible experience.  And Ben Metcalf obliges him in this sometimes sad, often laugh-out-loud funny, coming-of-age novel that would have been more have descriptively titled “Rant against the Country.”   

Ben Metcalf
Along the way, the narrator is (from his point-of-view) abused at home by a father who seems to take great glee and pride in making life at home as difficult as possible for his children; physically abused on the school bus on a regular basis; and abused, perhaps worst of all, by the physical environment in which he is forced to contend with snakes, forced labor, rats, and the harshest winters he would ever experience in his lifetime (both indoors and outdoors).  But, through it all, never does our narrator lose either his way with words or his sarcastic sense-of-humor.  He rants; he raves; and he makes us laugh.   

This, for instance, is one of his typical observations about his childhood:

            Mostly I spent my energies on my parents new conception of themselves, and to a smaller extent their children, as real Americans, which was undertaking enough, and looked to my chores, and mostly completed them, and did my best to stay out of the on-deck circle for a whipping, where I never stood less than third in line.”

That image of a special “on-deck circle” for whippings paints a vivid picture – and it made me laugh, transforming the sentence into one of my favorites in the entire book:
Against the Country is not an easy read, but patient readers will soon find themselves warming to both the narrator and his voice.  it is a novel I will remember for a long time, one that has earned a permanent spot on my already overcrowded book shelves.

Bonus Suggestion:  Do not skip the section at the end of the book titled “A note on the text,” whose first sentence is the pithy, “This text was set in Christ knows what by who knows whom,” or the section titled “A note on the people” that follows it. 

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  1. Ha! Your excerpts are wonderful. This isn't a book that would have interested me without having read your review, but the excerpts are gems!

    1. Parts of the book do make for rather confusing and tedious reading, Jenclair, but when the narrator turns up the wit and sarcasm, he reminds me of a Mark Twain on steroids.