Appreciating the quietness in John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

The Mountain Goats founder has a new novel that further proves his storytelling mastery.


I’ve developed the habit of listening to music as I read. Often, I’ll even put in the extra effort to assign certain albums and bands to match the tone of the book that I’m reading. For example, when reading through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I listened to a great deal of doom metal bands with epic and fantastical tendencies like Pallbearer and Giant Squid. Earlier this year, while reading Ian McGuire’s The North Water, I thought the music of Right Away, Great Captain! to be a sufficient companion… until the bleak and brutal solitude of the story gained enough terror and weight to throw off the balance between itself and Andy Hull’s dulcet voice and acoustic strumming — although “I Am A Vampire” from The Eventually Home could easily make a case for otherwise.

It may come to a surprise then, that when I came to read Universal Harvester, the second novel from John Darnielle, the founder and brilliant lyricist of The Mountain Goats, I chose quiet as its companion.

I am very glad that I did.

Fans of the Mountain Goats can attest that Darnielle is adept at crafting compelling stories and character studies through poetic imagery and verse in his songs. An entire life or crisis or adventure can pass within 3 minutes and easily feel like fulfilling storytelling.

This sort of wholesome brevity flourishes in Darnielle’s books as well. His prose traverses its way without hindrance upon peaks of story as they rise humbly above the surface of a vast gulf of human thought and feeling, through which readers are guided without threat of much in the way of surprises. All is revealed naturally through kind intrigue and seamless point of view shifts that take stock in the scope of the story at hand.

At its surface, Universal Harvester is the story of Jeremy Heldt, an employee at a Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa in the early 2000s, who begins hearing complaints from customers about strange footage found on their rentals. The story that results is one of generations through the rural Midwest: fathers, mothers, their children, and the seemingly unsolvable mysteries that bring them together.

There’s a certain sense of tranquility worth appreciating that comes with reading Darnielle’s words. It’s in the gentle and humane treatment of his characters who have already experienced the worst. It’s in his abstract explorations of feelings forced aside and thoughtful three sentence conversations and scenes that play out differently in other versions of the story but not this particular one.

And yet while the reading of Universal Harvester is itself a peaceful exploration of a quiet sea, it is only once you have finished the final paragraph and close the book itself that the waves begin to hit the back of your neck.

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