Against the Country by Ben Metcalf
If there is one thing I can say for Ben Metcalf’s new novel, it’s that it’s true to its own title. Against the Country is indeed, in ever way, a book-length screed about the backwardness of rural life. To the narrator’s dismay, his parents have moved the family from small-town Illinois to a farm outside of Richmond, Virginia. To say he finds the new pastoral setting wanting hardly captures the half of it. The circumstances hew close to Metcalf’s own upbringing as described on the back flap, and he wants you to wonder if the story is memoir masquerading as fiction—or possibly the other way around.
Metcalf’s opening salvo: “I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my youth.” Considering the summer I spent digging a literal ditch in the Georgia heat for little reason other than my father insisted, there are a few reasons why a book that opens like this might appeal to me personally. What follows, however, is chapter upon chapter of not narrative but verbose, endlessly discursive essays against every offensive dirt clod.
Metcalf’s dirtbag erudition has an allure, and his twisty sentences are fun for a good hundred pages, until you realize that you won’t be treated to any plot, characters, or dialogue. Even more disappointing, each of the chapters is essentially a variation on the same theme: the protagonist has a complaint.
So what happens? Not much. The narrator gets into some trouble but only a little. There are a few fights, but even those are overshadowed by the character’s ceaseless grousing. From time to time the shadowy outlines of people the narrator has known heave into view, only to evaporate in the white heat of the protagonist’s rage, before Metcalf moves on to his character’s next mild trauma.
The narrator’s windiness hits full-on gale force in a chapter devoted to his hate for—pause for the joke—corn:
What, though is to be done with the corn? Unless ground into a meal it will show itself everywhere: on the cob, where butter and salt cannot hide its babyfood sweetness; on the plate, where it sits hard and wet in an inedible pile; in a stew or a soup, where it represents in such number as to render everything else a mere garnish; in a fruit cocktail, where by rights it does not belong; in a salad, where it seems almost a cancer; in the mouth, where its shell hugs the tooth and slips under the gum; in the stool, where its constant and undigested presence speaks for how little nutrition is actually to be had from this false and most American of vegetables.
I can assure you that the context does not mitigate the egregiousness of that sentence. Some secondary hatred of other vegetables aside, dumping vitriol on corn is the chapter’s sole agenda.
Metcalf tries to keep it interesting by having the narrator raise questions about his own reliability. Some, including the publisher, have characterized this as metafiction, and while technically true, Against the Country is only self-conscious insofar as someone who’s fucking with you is aware that he’s fucking with you. I wouldn’t call a bully tweaking another tween’s nipples self-conscious.
Toward the end, Metcalf pleads insincerely, “Do no discard me for an ironist, for God knows I’m nothing of the sort. Pretending to pretend I find no more honest, or dishonest, than pretending not to pretend, and neither of these tasks will much, of itself, enhance the reality that I pretend now not to pretend to.” Got that? Metcalf wants you to wonder whether the story is true, even as he tells you its not. As Marr Karr wrote, “Any way I tell this story is a lie.” When someone else has already said it and so much more elegantly, you have to ask why bother. The book maybe charming for all its coyness, but after chapter upon chapter of maddeningly tortuous language with no payoff, it’s hard not to succumb to a kind of cognitive blueballs.