Naked Brunch

Barn 8 BY Deb Olin Unferth. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 256 pages. $16.

The cover of Barn 8

The next time I’m about to dine on a goat-cheese omelet I will pause to reflect on that first forkful. Images of hens in cramped cages stacked on top of each other, the rain of dung that pours down from the highest to lowest, and the thousands of sun-bright bulbs that accelerate their egg-laying cycles will come between that tasty morsel and my prospective enjoyment. A decision to eschew the omelet and order a salad instead would be a testament to the efficacy of Deb Olin Unferth’s unnervingly vivid descriptions of industrial egg production in Barn 8. Animal rights and the dire environmental effects of agribusiness are at the heart of Unferth’s second novel, one following story collections—Minor Robberies and Wait Till You See Me Dance—notable for their deadpan comedy and inventive narrative strategies rather than fealty to earnest themes. Barn 8, too, features more than a few innovative gambits, not to mention an intrepid, self-actualizing chicken named “Bwwaauk,” but overall this tale of an attempt to steal nine hundred thousand birds from an egg farm has as much in common with a caper film like Ocean’s 11 as it does with fiction by Lydia Davis and Donald Barthelme.

In the time-honored manner of the heist plot, Unferth assembles a team of quirky thieves, each with a particular talent. The book’s narrator is knowing in a nineteenth-century, omniscient kind of way (“In five minutes she would take a hen from Happy Green Family Farm and change the course of her life forever”) and interjects with droll commentary (“Here’s a question: Who cares? It’s just a bunch of stupid chickens”). When we first meet Janey, fifteen, she has just left Brooklyn to visit small-town Iowa, where her mother grew up and the father she never knew lives. Soon after, her mother is killed in an auto accident, stranding Janey in Nowheresville with a father she doesn’t like and a future very different from the one she had imagined. She divides herself into “old Janey” and “new Janey,” believing that old Janey’s life is the one she was meant to live. Five years later she’s an auditor for a company that inspects egg farms; the job comes courtesy of Cleveland, a woman who long ago idolized Janey’s mother, who had been her babysitter. Despite the two of them repeatedly citing violations regarding pollution and animal safety, nothing changes at the farms. “You describe what is or is not in compliance,” Cleveland is told by her supervisor. “You do not participate in the problem-solving process.”

Frustrated by this inaction, the pair begin kidnapping chickens and depositing them at the local animal-rescue office while Janey hatches a plan to go big: “An entire barn. Imagine the rows of empty cages. Imagine the farmer’s face.” The team grows to include Dill, a former activist who directed undercover operations that filmed and publicized animal abuse; his onetime colleague Annabelle, a legendary figure in the rescue community and member of an egg-farming family; Jonathan, Annabelle’s former husband, another scion of egg folk; and Zee, one of Dill’s protégés. The scheme may appear quixotic, if not doomed, but Unferth’s judiciously deployed research about factory farms not only builds into a believable motivation for her characters, but ignites in even this carnivorous reader a willingness to root them on. Drawing attention to the chicken trade’s euphemistic vocabulary, she shows how the atrocities of corporate farming are routinely sanitized: “‘depopulation’ (i.e., killing hens off by the hundred thousand), ‘forced molting’ (i.e., reducing their food to the point where they don’t quite die), ‘beak trimming’ (i.e., cutting off their faces).” And there’s Bwwaauk, Unferth’s representative bird, whom she observes as acutely as she does the bird’s would-be liberators: “Bwwaauk had grown up in Barn 8, an old-style A-frame structure, where the cages are piled in tiers on a slant so that when the crap drops through the wire, it misses (mostly) the hens in the lower tiers. Bwwaauk had lived in a bottom-row cage, the worst spot on an A-frame because crap drops on you from above.”

Such journalistic passages and others devoted to chickens in myth and history (there was a Boston Poultry Exposition in 1849 at which ten thousand people paid to “study a thousand chickens of all breeds and sizes”) vie for attention with a plot that grows increasingly predictable, despite the introduction of storytelling switch-ups like interrogation transcripts and journal entries.

Janey and Cleveland, whose backstories and intriguing odd-couple friendship take up the novel’s first seventy pages, get somewhat lost amid the heist’s hectic doings (over four hundred activists and a few dozen trucks) and a welter of characters (we spend time with Dill’s partner on a business trip for no discernible reason). Meanwhile, Janey’s maturation in the wake of her maternal loss, the origins of Cleveland’s discontent, and the psychological nuances of their pseudo-mother-daughter relationship could have been further explored; indeed, these women alone might have carried the entire book.

Barn 8’s chief draw and accomplishment is Unferth’s adeptness at wringing lyricism from the sordid domain of animal farming. The strong notes of reportorial advocacy—we learn that thousands of tons of waste ends up in waterways, or “sinks into the earth over a period of years . . . to form a thick crust of chicken shit to stay for all time”—strike with memorable imagistic force. From her unflinching focus on cruelty and excrement she raises her discerning, prophetic eye: “Far above the shit, in the shifting sky, the stars were the only objects humans could see and not destroy. They could destroy only the sight of them, which they were doing, dot by dot, the stars blinking out over the planet, dimmed by human light.” Who does care about “stupid chickens” is a question that infuses this novel with a piercing, personal intensity. Unferth makes the unseen shit visible, and reminds her reader that however much we want to look up or look away, it is stubbornly always there, right at the end of our forks.

Albert Mobilio’s fifth book of poems, Same Faces, will be published this year by Black Square Editions.