This book brings the total number of Tristan Egolf books read this year to 3—his entire catalog, actually, because he killed himself in 2005. His Kornwolf was the second book I read this year, and I also reread his much short Skirt and the Fiddle. I hadn’t intended to reread Lord of the Barnyard (incidentally, it’s my favorite book of all time), but earlier this week I was possessed of a manic desire to read it once again, having not done so since before I began this meme in 2005.
Lord of the Barnyard: killing the fatted calf and arming the aware in the cornbelt (its full title) is a massive, sprawling work with more levels than I care to get into for a simple review, but I’d like to briefly talk about a few rather than fawn over Egolf’s prose the entire time. But first, a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the work.
The story begins with Ford Kaltenbrunner, a miner in the small midwestern town of Baker, who is mysteriously killed just before the birth of his only son, John. The son ends up as an odd (possibly autistic) little misanthrope who happens to be a brilliant farmer. However, his life spirals out of control, and he ends up away from Baker for three years, after which he returns in virtual anonymity and ends up leading a garbage strike that leaves the town paralyzed and awash in its own excrement.
There are socialist overtones to the entire work. I hesitate to call John Kaltenbrunner an Everyman, but I am immediately reminded of Sinclair’s Jurgis (especially when John works in a poultry plant, whose own conditions aren’t much better than those of The Jungle). Baker isn’t overflowing with the well-to-do, but it is stratified nonetheless by perceived class differences, the garbagemen being at the very bottom of the heap, so to speak. John qua Lenin is the unassuming malcontent who inspires the dumptruck-driving proletariat to cast off the oppression of the narrow-minded bourgeoisie (or “Baker Lay,” as they are called). It’s a classic case of socialism on paper, wherein the working man’s withdrawal takes a cog from the grinding gears of society and brings the middle class tumbling down.
But at the same time the narrator or Egolf qua narrator seems to sympathize with the plight of the garbagemen in particular, there is a strange sort of hate for the zoo of southern-midwestern Baker, filled with third-generation German immigrants, slack-jawed yokels, ambulance-chasing Methodists, ‘wetback,’ and ‘trolls,’ whatever that may refer to. In fact, I would venture to say that there is nothing less than unbridled contempt for the blinkered, Philistine pig-ignorance of the “Baker Lay,” which includes the so-called “factory rats” that also make up the lower class. Egolf’s selective sympathy continues to strike me as strange.
It’s easy to think of John as a messianic figure, and in fact he is both revered as a messiah by a small group of townspeople and reviled as an antichrist by most everyone else. The most prominent feature of Lord of the Barnyard, moreso even than the struggle of class warfare and intellectual elitism, is the matter of Legend. You see, the entire book is a narration by an unnamed garbageman who knew John, and he takes great pains to point out that the tale isn’t entirely known by anyone: just as John struggled all his life with the dubious legend of his father, so the embarrassed Baker Lay struggle with and obfuscate the legend of John Kaltenbrunner, the “corncrib fascist,” who became an almost mythical-being in an attempt to downplay his role in the spanking of Baker.
But that’s the stuff of theses. One of the things I really love most about Lord of the Barnyard is the rollicking prose. It contains absolutely no direct dialogue, everything being told as a sort of transcription of an oral tradition. What’s more, Egolf seems to take particular exuberance in the power of language, going on for pages and pages to describe single scenes, his pen sharp as a blade, never afraid to eviscerate the “Methodist crones” or detail young John’s extensive work on the farm. It’s truly a rhetorical marvel, and that has something to do with its continued existence as my favorite book.
It’s not as easy to find as, say, a Harry Potter novel, but if you ever see it, I suggest you pick it up. Lord of the Barnyard is an absolutely fantastic piece of work, and reading it over again made me feel weepy that Egolf is dead and gone. What a damn shame.