Universal Harvester:

What Hides Beneath the Unturned Stone

John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester was not the book I would usually expect from a songwriter from an Indie musician from Southern California. But it is probably what I should have expected from this musician. He explores the struggles of a young man in Nevada, Iowa. It dives unabashedly into the dark parts of his psyche, and reveals not only the struggles of an individual but those of an entire culture in crisis, that of the rural American town.

The people of Nevada are being strangled out by economic forces beyond their control. An old owner of a hardware store erased by the economies of scale offered to Home Depot. The Video Hut’s existence is threatened — not by Netflix, but by the arrival of a Blockbuster (remember those?). The great consolidation of retail, agriculture, and industry is killing these small towns as the young people are forced to the coasts to find opportunity. Once they leave, they never return. This leaves a people and a culture trapped, isolated, and helpless; it robs them of their ability to dream.

This idea of a place existing only to those who find it important is present in the narrator’s tendency to linger on an idea, place, or a tone for longer than is comfortable so the reader is forced to notice what would otherwise be forgotten. This drifting causes the narrator to come off, at first, as lacking focus. But as you begin to understand the style of prose that Darnielle uses, this drifting and meandering supports one of the main themes of the book: exploring the slow decay that happens when a place, a culture, or a person goes unscrutinized and unnoticed for too long.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón uses a similar technique in his 2006 film Children of Men with a drifting and lingering camera that forces consideration of the background. Cuarón uses the technique to ground his story in the people of in crumbling world that has lost its future due to a pandemic of infertility. Universal Harvester is, likewise, set in a place whose future is uncertain.This uncertainty, though, comes not from an imagined pandemic but from very real socioeconomic forces killing small towns in the rural Midwest such as Nevada, Iowa, where the novel is set. The dying breaths of the town are felt by the characters who remember what it was and yearn for what it can no longer be.

Although fictionalized, the slow decay of Nevada, Iowa is a very real phenomenon with very real ramifications for the people who have made their homes in towns like Nevada. Darnielle captures this in the physical structures that make up the town. He describes the way the wind “sings” across the plane, “keening in protest” against the windbreaks built by the immigrant settlers 150 years in the past. A farmhouse, long abandoned by the roadside, is always passed by, never scrutinized. Drawers unopened, a bed upstairs gone unused. The building will eventually crumble.

The thing about these decaying buildings is that they entice the careful observer with a magnetism that, when felt, is impossible to ignore. Yet, when the observer is careless, it is all too easy to drive by these places. In Universal Harvester, John Darnielle implores us to slow down and respect the people who have made their lives in those places. To consider, for a while the dreams left in the top drawer. These places, now falling in disrepair, were once the foundation of someone’s life, and even if the names are forgotten the place carries the weight of those ghosts.