Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016; 224 pp


John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, is terrifying. When patrons of a videostore in Nevada, Iowa complain to the clerk that another film has been spliced into the middle of their rentals, we’re introduced to the sort of obsessive and atmospheric terror that feels shockingly close to the bone. The edits themselves aren’t scary out of context: static shots of a shed; a person tied to a chair with a canvas bag over their head; people under a tarp, bucking and thrashing; the sound of fingernails running over canvas. OK, it is also terrifying out of context. I concede.

But then something bold happens. Darnielle pivots from the horror elements and settles into a dense character drama, swimming in grief. It’d be a mistake to call him the protagonist, but our entry point into the plot, the videostore clerk Jeremy, has lost his mother. His relationship with his father skates over the not so easy ice of her absence. Jeremy obsesses over these images in the tapes. They upset him deeply, and he’s not the only one. The novel takes bold risks in ditching Jeremy for a deep look into a separate character’s backstory, reflecting on the loss of her own mother to a pop-up cult. Eventually, and in a very different way, these videotapes obsess her too. It takes this risk a third time. A fourth. It circles back and we start to see some sort of connective tissue of American loss.

There are feints toward genre and toward a different sort of postmodern novel, with a first person narrator dipping in and out of omniscience. We’re stopped at various points and told what could have happened, or what happens in a different version of the story. Sometimes that version of the story is happier. Sometimes it’s the same, only different. All of these stories and characters circle back to family, particularly motherhood and devastation that exists in the absence of it. There is, however, hope in resilience. The characters maybe find respite in unhealthy ways, ways that look dangerous and leave them sobbing or out of balance or frightened but provide Band-Aids to their grief.

In a lot of ways this book is an anomaly: a page turner that reads slowly; a character study that keeps its characters at a distance, honing in on one aspect and letting that define them (as we so often do in our own lives); a regional novel of themes that extend beyond region. It’s a brave second novel, one that’s not necessarily an easy read but one with depth and a real map to emotional territory not often explored.