Monday, July 10, 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Someone is taping over movie rentals in the small town of Nevada, Iowa.  It’s the late 90s and things like video rental stores still exist in places like Nevada.  Jeremy is a clerk at Video Hut and a couple of customers have asked him to “take a look” at some tapes.  They’ve been taped over in certain spots, usually just for a few minutes.  This in itself isn’t too surprising but the added portions are – they consist of home video footage.  Some of the footage is just a static shot of what appears to be the corner of a shed, all in black and white.  Another piece of footage shows a person with a burlap sack over his or her head…tied to a chair.  Even worse, there are landmarks visible sometimes, landmarks from just outside of town.  It’s all quite disturbing to say the least.  Jeremy partners up with his boss and one of the customers to investigate who might be doing this and why.

Most critiques I’ve read of Universal Harvester only give a synopsis of the first section (as I did) but the book is split into three parts.  The reason for this is pretty obvious.  The first section is the most unsettling and exciting.  It almost reads like a thriller or even some psychological horror story.  It’s page-turning stuff.  The second section jumps back in time to a different part of the country with completely different characters.  And the third section comes closer to the present day back in Nevada, Iowa.  There are connections between the three parts but many of them aren’t clear until near the end.  One thing tying them all together is the narration which occasionally slips into a disturbing first person point of view.  Don’t come to this book expecting easy answers or neat little bows.  The author, John Darnielle, is more interested in getting across the themes:  loss, mothers (and the lack thereof), and what the transition can be like for those left behind when someone goes away.

If you like this book, you might also be interested in Darnielle's first novel, Wolf in White Van, another story with no easy answers reviewed here.

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