Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

There’s a certain amount of trust that an author asks of their reader when writing a book that constantly changes. John Darnielle, best known as the lead man of indie folk band The Mountain Goats, asked that of his readers when he debuted in 2014 with Wolf In White Van. Following a non-chronological plot, Darnielle’s first novel was very well received and nominated for the National Book Award. Back with his second effort readers can expect to find an experimental story about VHS tape splicing.

It’s the late 90’s and Jeremy spends his days and nights manning the counter of the Video Hut. It’s not the best job available in Nevada, Iowa (the first a is pronounced ay), but he’s comfortable in it. Usually when he closes the story he’ll take a tape home, have dinner with his dad and they’ll watch the movie together. But all of a sudden people start telling Jeremy that something is wrong with the movies that they’ve rented, as if people are somehow recording over retail VHS tapes. At first Jeremy shrugs it off until he experiences it himself one night while watching a movie with his dad. People keep making complaints and Jeremy is forced to report it to the store owner who initial doesn’t seem overly concerned either. But as Jeremy sees more and more of these short, misplaced clips he becomes more concerned because the clips, although almost indecipherable, are most certainly disturbing in some nature. Jeremy prefers not to get involved in whatever he’s stumbled upon, but curiosity eventually gets the best of him.

Long time fans of Darnielle, either of his writing or work in his band The Mountain Goats, will find something to appreciate in Universal Harvester. Right from the start the writing is compulsively readable, drawing the reader in with the simple story of these mysterious VHS tapes. Darnielle’s ease of writing, realistic dialogue and layman style make Universal Harvester a novel that can easily be read in a few sittings. And while the plot will draw the reader in for the first third of the novel, it’s the dreadful atmospheric tension that keeps the reader going. The novel makes the reader feel as if it’s constantly raining inside the book and out, Darnielle taking you by the hand and asking you to trust him as he leads you through a story that is constantly changing directions. Once finished with the book I found myself holding it, flipping it over, touching every inch of the cover space hoping that it would some how help me understand it’s meaning easier, quicker. But like any good novel only time can solve such a thing.

Rating: 4 out of 5 – Compulsively readable and multilayered, Universal Harvester will find fans of all sorts. No one should be surprised to see this novel shortlisted for an award later this year.

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