Feb 2 2015

Against the Country by Ben Metcalf

Emily Colette Wilkinson

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Against the Country:

A Novel

by Ben Metcalf

Random House

$26.00 List Price

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Perhaps you have wondered (and who hasn’t?) what sort of memoir Bob Ewell, redneck villain of To Kill a Mockingbird, might have written about his life of attempted child-murder and successful child-beating, drunkenness, perjury, and poaching after a long course of education in Juvenalian satire and Ciceronian rhetoric? Or what Jonathan Swift or perhaps Renfield, the “zoophagus maniac” in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, might have become had one of them ripened to manhood in the 1970s on the kudzu and rat-rich red clay of Goochland County, Virginia?

It is just these questions that Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country answers, and answers with a rhetorical and syntactic virtuosity that has not been seen on these shores since the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and with a backwoods horror that has not been seen since Deliverance or As I Lay Dying. That the book manages also to be a gut-busting knee-slapper despite its abundant scenes of animal suicide, racism, rape among chickens, children with guns, drunk driving, pinworm and tick infestation, “inebriations” of hunters, child whippings and animal tortures (nearly sublime in their strangeness and variety) is perhaps its greatest feat. Or is it that Metcalf manages to tar, feather, and ride on a rail Jefferson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain and their golden notions of American pastoral and the idyll that is rural, agrarian life (not to mention their rustic, latter-day descendants: The Carter Family, John Denver, Lynard Skynard, and Credence Clearwater Revival)?

For the life described in Against the Country is no idyll; rather, it is a mosquito-bit hellscape rendered in such highly wrought rhetorical flowerings that the cognitive dissonance between the dirt-smeared subject matter and the magnificent sentences may well leave you a little wobbly, a little vertiginous. It may also put you in mind of Philip Larkin’s quip that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” or Jonathan Swift’s couplet, “Such order from confusion sprung, / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” Nor, one suspects, is this novel-cum-memoir/tirade entirely fictional, though Metcalf insists it is so in his prefatory note, while at the same time tipping the wink in declaring that he, “does not honestly imagine that there could exist, in Virginia or elsewhere, a county with so preposterous a name as the one given here.” (Consult any map of the environs of Richmond, dear reader: Goochland is no Yoknapatawpha.)

The brutal Goochland County childhood of Metcalf’s unnamed first-person narrator gives loose structure to the book and, quite understandably, inculcates in him a monomaniacal hatred of country life. Consider—for a taste of the book’s horror and humor and its rhetorical bravura—this passage, in which the narrator describes his relationship with “the beasts of the air”:

…and then there were those strange little not-birds who gathered in such buzzing number on a classroom windowsill in early fall (or was it late spring?) that I had merely to spit in my palm to attract a candidate I could close my fingers upon, and with a sucked thumb work the tiny head upward until it was exposed, aslant and amazed, at which point I could fasten upon it a slip-knotted leash made out of a strand begged from the scalp of a serious girl who wished not to know what I wanted with her hair.

Hoping to commune with but also to profit from my environs, I conceived of a plan to market my harnessed houseflies as low-maintenance, low-grief pets, and so win the high-school business fair, except that there was no business fair. I planned also to coat myself in a “formula” comprising sugar and buttermilk and cow feces (or human: I had yet to decide), and then “command” these creatures to fetch me something light to which their strings had already been attached (the first-place ribbon, say), and so win the science fair, except that there was no science fair.

After I had learned that there were no betterment fairs at the high school, I tethered these flies to my wrists and shoelaces and even my own tresses, and walked those halls a pariah, whispered to be so evil, or so near death, that the maggots had already got a start on me. A year or two earlier I might have done so out of an anger or a self-pity; I acted now from a joie de vivre.

It is Metcalf’s gift as it was Swift’s to be able to imaginatively occupy the mind of the madman so fully and to speak so fluently in his unhinged accents as to leave you with the conviction that he too must have a tincture of madness about him. Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” advocated the eating of Irish children as a solution to the country’s poverty and did so in such a voice that the essay was taken in earnest by some (and still is by the occasional hung-over undergraduate). If you have read Metcalf’s remarkable 2006 Harper’s essay “On Simple Human Decency,” you know that he is an old hand at walking the fine line between impassioned and well-reasoned moral outrage and deranged bloodthirstiness, as well as the fine line between victory and defeat. (The essay explores at some length this question: “Am I allowed to write that I would like to hunt down George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands?” Short answer: No. And yet Metcalf does it in the very sentence quoted above!)

As that essay quivers between victory and defeat and moral outrage and homicidal anger, so too does Against the Country, which also quivers between hymn and obloquy. It is a punch in the gob for the country-strong set, but it is at the same time a striking memorial to them—in all of their obscenity, filth, violence, ignorance, and absurdity. Metcalf’s most striking rebuke to the Goochland rustics is his language itself. Take this sentence:

I would prefer to see them punished who insist that any vengeance grown here must be a holy vengeance, even as it halves and sets fire to the innocent; and who maintain that homosexuals were placed on this earth by Lucifer to rape what few white babies can be saved from the abortionist’s tongs; and who think it the height of nonconformity to hold that many (not all, of course, but more than one is allowed to say) black babies are conceived with a welfare check in mind, which premeditated theft should in all fairness be met with penalties more severe than the mere mass incarceration already under way, which program itself is unethical (that is, inefficient) in that it wastes further tax dollars on the care and feeding of prisoners who will never (studies show) be reformed, and are immigrants anyway, or else the burdensome profligation of same (whether they arrived here in shackles being entirely beside the point), and so are in essence the same thing as enemies of the state, and so really (to make the “tough call” here, to protect society as a whole and not merely its privileged minorities) ought to be killed.

Its rebuke to country thinking is contained equally in its substance and style, for the man who can build such a sentence—substance aside—is in some fundamental way no longer of a place in which a recently impregnated girl might explain the circumstances that occasioned her condition thusly: “He mmped me. He mmped me good.” These country utterances, though, are obviously objects of affection for Metcalf even as they appall him, and if, by the end of the book, you can tell the difference between his love and his hate—or between what made and what broke him—I will eat this review.

This is as wild and as good a book as you are likely to read this year. If there still is such a thing as a lover of classical rhetoric among the American reading public, the anaphora, asyndeton, personification, zeugma, and copia on display in Against the Country are likely to make him weak in the knees. Sadly, rhetoric enthusiasts being somewhat thin on the ground in these modern days, I suspect that this is a book whose readers will be fit though few. And, in the end, it seems appropriate that Against the Country—a book as generically strange and as finely made and as darkly American as Moby Dick—may meet the same short-term fate as that great book did upon its publication. But I suspect (if this barbaric age of waning literacy ever draws to a close) that Against the Country may find its fate in Moby Dick’s again. It is an unholy and leering marvel.

Emily Colette Wilkinson is a writer and teacher living in Washington, DC. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewers Contest and has taught most recently at Episcopal High School and The College of William & Mary.

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