Cover image for Against the country : a novel
Against the country : a novel
Metcalf, Ben, author.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2015]
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328 pages ; 22 cm
"Set in the Virginia pines, and overrun with failed parents, racist sex offenders, cast-off priests, and suicidal chickens, this novel challenges literary convention even as it attacks our national myth: that the rural naturally engenders good, while the urban breeds an inevitable sin"--Dust jacket flap.
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Library
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NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY VULTURE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR * Against the Country is a gift for fans of Southern Gothic and metafiction alike. Set in the Virginia pines, and overrun with failed parents, racist sex offenders, cast-off priests, and suicidal chickens, this novel challenges literary convention even as it attacks our national myth--that the rural naturally engenders good, while the urban breeds an inevitable sin.

In a voice both perfectly American and utterly new, Ben Metcalf introduces the reader to Goochland County, Virginia--a land of stubborn soil, voracious insects, lackluster farms, and horrifying trees--and details one family's pitiful struggle to survive there. Eventually it becomes clear that Goochland is not merely the author's setting; it is a growing, throbbing menace that warps and scars every one of his characters' lives.

Equal parts fiery criticism and icy farce, Against the Country is the most hilarious sermon one is likely to hear on the subject of our native soil, and the starkest celebration of the language our land produced. The result is a literary tour de force that raises the question: Was there ever a narrator, in all our literature, so precise, so far-reaching, so eloquently misanthropic, as the one encountered here?

Praise for Against the Country

"Iconoclastic . . . Against the Country has obvious affinities to Southern Gothic, both in its voice and in the delight it takes in rural ignorance and grotesqueries. . . . [A] country cousin of David Foster Wallace." -- The New York Times Book Review

"Exceptional in its verbal brilliance and conscientiousness, Against the Country involves us in a family's anguished and hilarious struggle against the strange dooms that seem peculiar to white rural America. This is a savage and gladdening novel." --Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland and The Dog

"Metcalf's unnamed narrator dazzles with his Puritan deadpan and capacious intellect, not to mention his double-barreled blasts of dark humor and wicked satire. . . . There are so many brilliant turns of phrase in Against the Country that it's hard to choose favorites, but Metcalf is at his sharpest and most seductive when his antihero does more than blast and blame, when he steps outside his sermons to say something real. . . . Every note in every solo is sounded with exquisite perfection." -- Slate

"Faulknerian . . . eccentric, magnificent Southern Gothic metafiction." -- Vanity Fair

"Ben Metcalf is a brilliant writer, and Against the Country is an ingenious and hilarious novel, a glittering, bitter celebration of how the lousiness of life can be redeemed in the hands (and mouth) of a top-shelf teller of life's stories." --Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and The Fun Parts

"A daring conglomeration of every trick, swindle and gimmick possible using only ink and paper, a pulpwood imagination machine so finely and expertly wrought that it can take on Jefferson, Thoreau, the church, patriotism, race relations, sexual identity, J. D. Salinger, the myth of America and a thousand other targets . . . [ Against the Country ] is absolutely and completely worth all investment of time and effort, because it is an undeniably beautiful object, sharp as a new razor." --NPR

"One of the more necessary--and most eloquent--expressions of a distinctly American, provincial rage in some years." -- Flavorwire

Author Notes

Ben Metcalf (1966-?) was born in Illinois and raised in that state and later in rural Virginia. He was for many years the literary editor of Harper's Magazine . He has since taught at Columbia University's School of the Arts and joined the Lapham's Quarterly editorial board. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, Harper's Magazine, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Metcalf, essayist and former literary editor of Harper's, debuts with a virtuosic tour de force of Southern malfeasance. The largely plotless narrative records a rural boyhood in Goochland County, Va., the narrator's relationship with his ever-vengeful father, and the rigors of farm-life. Sprawling and underpopulated, Goochland is the setting for the indignities of grade school, boozy first love, rejection of "the killer-God idea," and salvation in literature. But even amid the requisite episodes of racial disharmony and religious fervor, Metcalf's storytelling often digresses, and, in short sections with titles like "I Feared the Corn," he obsesses over every particular of the land. From blackberries, chickens, and ringworm to meditations on Jehovah's Witnesses and an appendix on dogs, the all-American life is lovingly deconstructed in a passionate screed that feels like a confession from the tortured heart of the South itself. But even in envying Thomas Jefferson "his idyllic hallucinations" and damning "this flytrap of a county," Metcalf composes a relentlessly articulate paean to the American project. In the end, this isn't a Southern novel, because it isn't exactly a novel. It's more like man's revenge on God for the world he made-and anyone who disagrees must be a Yankee. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

This debut from the former literary editor at Harper's magazine is a descriptive diatribe requiring careful reading for full appreciation of its wit. The book tells the tale of a family that moves from suburban Illinois ("the town") to rural Virginia ("the country"). Told through the first-person recollections of an unnamed son, this work is roughly poised as an ad hominem attack on "the country" in favor of "the town." Criticism of a tyrannical and abusive father looms large in the narrative, though it is often leavened with some attempt at understanding. The institution of the rural school bus, the language of social workers, and the very landscape of "the country" are also taken to task. Besides being quite amusing, this book provides a potent examination of rural culture and of life in general. Of particular note is a chicken named Buttfucker, an evil black snake, and the descriptive notes on various dogs owned by the narrator's family. VERDICT The recirculating structure and casual yet intensely cerebral nature of this book make an arresting though demanding read. Many will hate it, some may embrace it, a few will be marked by it; highly recommended for those who care. [See Prepub Alert, 7/14/14/]-Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

"Town" is the place left behind, the place where our narrator might have grown up in something approximate to sanity, if life had gone differently. Instead, this is the story of a boy taken from Town and transported by his parents to rural Virginia, a hellish place where children are treated like mules and miseries are as numerous as flies. The boy's story is not told in a linear format. Rather, readers are sucked into winding, wordy paragraphs that pulse from eloquent reflections on topics as diverse as religion and whipping sticks. The experience of riding the school bus, for example, includes sentences like "I wonder: When the great root below us inspired in Thomas Jefferson his idyllic hallucinations, and began to grow its system westward under the Appalachian range (toward the Mississippi snake oil it would require to reach and pervert California), did it bestow upon him a vision of the roving metal stomach that would, a century and change after his presidency, gobble up the nation's children by law each morning and vomit them into a freshly graveled parking lot?" For some teens, the innovative structure will be a refreshing change from traditional storytelling. Experimentation in art is often well appreciated by young, flexible minds. For others, the novelty of the text may be short-lived. VERDICT Metcalf demonstrates that literature can be a wild, untamed thing, constrained only by the limits of imagination and courage.-Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Town I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to 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. That their plan busted would be of some comfort to me could I find fault in its formulation, but these two were not stupid: I have spoken at length with the both of them and judge each one to be of the highest wit. Nor were they cruel: my brother and sister will no doubt attest to the fact that our makers never left us hungry and that they seemed, on the whole, at least partial to us. Nor may I safely argue that their verdict on town life, whatever torments I might ascribe to the sentence, differed in any large part from my own, so negligent was town in its attitude toward us, and so sorry a welcome did our line receive there after nearly three centuries spent adrift in the New World's vast and terrible wilderness. Town (by which I mean the middling depots of Southern Illinois, though from what I have seen of such places elsewhere they might have served just as well) was where a former farmboy's peers led him with little effort to conclude that scholarship money was best put toward Scotch whiskey and unfiltered cigarettes; where in the resultant fog he resolved that only marriage to, and abrupt procreation with, a woman met some eight weeks prior could plausibly avert commerce with the Vietcong; whereupon he watched a single child swell with remarkable ease into three and then learned from his town wife that an enormous effort would now be required to feed them all; whereupon in a panic he fell prey to what the French call a nostalgia for the mud and contrived thereafter to work only with his hands, sure that these hands would not betray him as the brain had; whereupon he discovered that town tended to confine such people to jobs concerned primarily with the assembly of prefabricated homes, whose authors balanced the monotony of their craft with a fast loyalty to amphetamine; whereupon an insipid despair left him open to, but deprived him of the imagination to accept, proposals from more motivated coworkers to help rob area fast-food establishments and drive tractor-trailers full of marijuana down into these United States from the fabled nurseries of western Canada. Town was where a young woman, confident of her sophistication despite only a slim generation's remove from the trees herself, married the farmboy to amputate herself, fashionably, from the trunk of her own family; and bore not the first of her children but certainly the subsequent two so that she might cauterize the wound, or else salt it; and soon enough grasped the illogic of union to a man unfamiliar with affluence and beholden to the dirt for his self-esteem and his sanity. Who was then clotheslined in her effort to aid the brood materially when, the aforementioned fine mind notwithstanding, no better task presented than secretary at the local rock radio station, WEIC, which position she would lose anyway at a time roughly concurrent with the loss of her husband's job at UniBuilt. Town was where this woman beheld the great locust wave of in-laws come in search of money she did not have or could not possibly spare, where out of empathy, or embarrassment, or guilt, or a confluence of these ills, she took it upon herself to provide the odd car ride or bed, and to ignore this one's taste for drugs, and that one's taste for morons, and to stuff the more malnourished babies with what was at hand, and to keep abreast of each tragically unavoidable court date, until the afternoon came when she saw her husband exorcise the drunken swarm of them from his yard, after which they drove up and down the street and shouted threats to kill him, after which he shouted threats to kill them sooner, after which I find it hard to believe that my mother did not reflect upon the likelihood that she had thus far escaped this lot's lot only by grace of the humble sums she still asked for, and received, from her kind if disappointed town parents. Town for me will forever remain a place where one put a bag of questionable design on one's head for Halloween, and acquired what candy as the bag allowed, and vomited in surprise and fury the next morning on the filthy tile floor outside an aunt's efficiency apartment, wherein slept a beloved infant cousin whose metal-toothed sire was unaccounted for and who would in time (the infant) grow up to burn down his high school and find steady if unsung work as an adjunct to the beef industry. My younger sister's memories of town may be few but surely include the day the worse-off people around the corner, whose sole consolation in life appeared to be the fried-chicken dinner an area philanthropist stood them to once each week, leashed a mutt by means of a frayed electrical cord plugged into an outdoor socket, so that the entire neighborhood might hear the poor creature's shrieks as it caught fire and perished. She has shown a fondness for almost all God's animals since. Our brother alone seemed to extract some pleasure from town, being older and hence afforded friends and a paper route, and having gained for himself a measure of boyhood fame when in guile he lured the thieves of a treasured lunchbox down into the ravine through which ran the local sewage creek, and there received them cruelly with his friends' fists and his own, not to mention the impressive might of the sewage itself. His was the earliest recognition of, and the only real objection to, the fact that our family was set to quit the company of mankind altogether if it could and plant itself once more in the desolate slough from which it had but recently crawled. Tarnation We would have done well to heed the dissenter, for as frail as the rest of us found town to be it was, and always had been, the one conceivable bulwark against an annihilation that has hunted every human who dared, or was by circumstance forced, to set his foot upon this treacherous soil. Did the Indian not spread himself over the new land by band and by village? Did the Spaniard or the Frenchman not pause in his slaughter of the Indian to put up his forts against the bear and the water and the wind? Did the Englishman not hurriedly arrange, in his attempt to destroy the Spaniard and the Frenchman (and, of course, the Indian), the huts of his vanished Roanoke, and did he not raise up his Jamestown and his Plymouth all the faster? Did the Dutchman not hoodwink the Indian so that he might secure his New Amsterdam, and did he not war with the Englishman over that slight and others, and in the end swap the whole of the operation for some sugar stalks down in Suriname? I ask you: Did the plantation not arise and have its run, however truncated, because it was, in effect, less a farm than it was a township populated and maintained by slaves? Did the pioneer and the prospector not normally die at once, and can it be said that the lonely homesteader who survived was anything but miserable in his barren and pitiless surrounds? I suppose that my parents, who were not innocent of history, might have given the evidence against seclusion in the American brush its due, and seen fit to discount their own hard time of it among humans, had town here not decomposed by the 1970s to the point where one could expect no more than the same polluted rill or "river" oozing through its heart or along one rib, and the same cluster of mediocre chain stores with a shared and weed-broken parking lot, and the same Democratic or Republican electoral machine, and the same contagious Kiwanis- or Rotary-club swimming pool just west of the trailer park, and the same sclerosed gauntlet of schools whose far end was a football team with no better shot at state than it had the year before, and the same bars and whores in imitation of bars and whores in larger towns, and the same summer visit from the stringy-haired druggists and statutory rapists who ran rides at the local fair, and the same debate about which street signs had by their presence or absence caused which oddly relished traffic fatalities, and the same brand-new brick pokey full of drunks and whores and high-school footballers and destitute neighbors and blood relatives as one could no doubt find in the next town over. Yet can town's letdown alone account for the keenness with which my mother and father envisioned the ruin of each of their children in turn by coach or cousin or carny rapist? Can it explain the ease with which they came to believe that town's alternative was not a bug-bit hell but rather a tit-cuddled arcadia? Can it excuse the swiftness with which these people determined to hurl themselves, and their children, headlong into the national briar patch, there to itch and to bleed? I deny it. I deny that town is the root of all harm to these United States. I deny that our blighted communities owe nothing to the land upon which they were made. I deny that this continent, unlike all the others, wishes to graze cattle and grow foodstuffs for the benefit of its invaders. I deny that tarnation has a grip only on those Americans who lay claim to more than one neighbor, and who direct no great suspicion at the universities, and who refuse to believe that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was written (and then presumably revised) by the Baby Jesus, and who have yet to purchase, out of imagined or actual need, either a pickup truck or a Soviet-issued machine gun. To my mind, he who turns his back on town is as prone as anyone to become evil's eager and ignorant sponge. For the sake of the republic I wish for the sake of the republic that I could call our decision to flee town's omens a mere reaction to them, but as gamely as town worked to push us away another force, of a much higher order, and with the potential to devastate all that humanity has raised up in defense of itself, tugged at us all the while, and muddled our thoughts, and drew us out into the trees to glare at omens more powerful than any we had seen with their pants off down on Main Street. The very least of what awaited us, perhaps by way of reproach, were drunks with a better reason to imbibe than in town and a good deal farther to drive, and carnies whose rickety rides were less well cared for than in the populated areas but who nonetheless represented all the glamour a fourteen-year-old country girl was liable to encounter in her lifetime, and whores who were older and less toothsome renditions of that selfsame fourteen-year-old girl, and furious high-school football players whose Baptist prayers had never won them so much as a break-even season, and neighbors of such paltry means that they generally lacked the amperage required to electrocute a dog and so were left to use a firearm on it or on any other animal they happened across during the course of an otherwise empty day. No more than ten at the time of our departure from civilization, if what we treaded in for so bleak a stretch can be said to warrant the term, I did not know, nor would I have approved, of our subscription to the very lie that had, some seven generations previous on my father's side, and a competitive number on my mother's, orchestrated the grand farce by which I first entered the American hoedown in the first place. That I emerged and took air in an Illinois hospital and not a cornfield I count as something of a miracle, given that my forebears were suckered out into the region not by a promise of suitable communities there, which anyway did not exist then and arguably do not exist now, but by a promise of land, countless acres of it, advertised to be rich and bountiful and blessed, if not actually occupied, by God Himself. It seems hardly to have occurred to my ancestors, or to my own parents, that this same God had for centuries shown a marked preference for town, and a tendency to yield the whole of the wild expanses to Satan, and had inspired (at least in His New England penitents) a fear and a hatred of the natural world intense enough that anyone who expressed an admiration for the woods, or a curiosity about the high grass beyond the village, was likely to be dubbed a witch and set directly on fire. How exactly God was persuaded to leave town I do not know, but I assume He was removed by the same men, now rotted, who long ago condemned my bloodline to oblivion on behalf of the enormous real-estate hustle that today comprises the worthless plains adjacent to the Mississippi, and the obviously infertile desert beyond those plains, and the murderous mountains beyond that desert, and the perfectly alien far coast those mountains traitorously guard. He may have made a go of it on the steppe, or up in the hills, and He may eventually have come to take a stubborn pride in His predicament, as country people are wont to do, or He may have gathered Himself up and vacated the continent entirely, provided the soil had not sucked away His power to do even that. At any rate He appears to have become separated from His American flock, and He has since provided little real, as opposed to claimed, comfort to those millions of His presumed neighbors who once parted with dependable town money to work and inhabit, if never in truth to possess, an unkind land they had been told was proximate to Glory. As an accomplice to this scheme, and perhaps a principal in it, Thomas Jefferson seems to me to have sinned cardinally, with his comfortable slaver's dream of an agrarian wonderland and his criminal transfer of public funds to the Napoleonic war effort so as to avail us of the hectares needed to prove that dream a nightmare. I also hold accountable Daniel Boone, first realtor through the Cumberland Gap; and Fenimore Cooper, whose salesmanship of the prairie and the waterways as a playground for white boys continues to plague us with foreign-exchange students and unwatchable Hollywood films; and Mr. Greeley, who encouraged the young to believe that a westward trek would not, in fact, kill a number of them outright and deliver the rest into penury; and Mr. Audubon, whose still lifes do little to indicate that actual birds flap around overly much and tend to spread influenzas; and Messrs. Alcott and Lane and Emerson and Thoreau, who were not satisfied that the land should be thought benevolent and wise but sought also to equate these ludicrous properties with the American soul; and Senator Calhoun, who damned the nation to Armageddon (though he would not live to enjoy the scene) with his fantasy that somewhere between the smug agribusiness of the plantation and the observable grief of the tenant farm was to be found a "way of life" whose protection was worth the risk (and, as it turned out, the reality) of death and dismemberment and subjugation. Excerpted from Against the Country: A Novel by Ben Metcalf All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.