I have reviewed the late Tristan Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard in 2006, though I’ve read it several times (and could have sworn I’d reviewed it twice…) since my friend first thrust it into my hands in high school and said, with unlikely solemnity, “You have to read this.”
Doing multiple reviews about the same book is difficult, especially if one’s opinions haven’t drastically changed since the last iteration; this review of Lord of the Barnyard doesn’t see yours truly suddenly deciding that Egolf is blasé or the book is suddenly overwrought. In fact, I remain more convinced than ever that it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. There is a common item of praise and a common complaint from reviewers, and the two are really one and the same:
- Praise: the book is “frenzied” and “wonderfully strange” (Literary Review); “always intense” (De Morgan; a “manic, epic [wild ride]” (Publisher’s Weekly).
- Criticism: the book is “prone to stretches of excess” (Publisher’s Weekly); a “rough beast, both interesting and exciting without quite managing to be good” (NY Times); “a form of shotgun writing” (Salon1 )
Notice that both positive and negative assertions talk about the same tendency, often in the same breath; Lord of the Barnyard is overwritten, overblown, and haphazard, but manages to “sizzle” (to use Mark Luce’s phrase) despite it. Few, if any, reviewers have posited that Lord of the Barnyard is good as it is—that its excesses are planned, beneficial, or wonderful, but this is precisely the standpoint that I take. Let me try to explain why.
“The corncrib fascist”
We’re never told who the narrator of the book is; we know only that he is a garbage man in run-down Baker—one of the group of abused and chronically underemployed “hill scrubs” or “green niggers” whose ranks the novel’s protagonist eventually joins, and that he writes from the benefit of hindsight and a significantly more impressive vocabulary than one might otherwise attribute to a garbage man of Egolf’s Kentucky. Like a blue-collar hagiographer, the narrator begins to tell us about John Kaltenbrunner, the only child of Ford and Madame Kaltenbrunner, with the sort of studied and concerned solemnity of a Jesuit telling the Christmas story. At the time of writing, John is apparently in exile following some disaster, and has become a monster of mythological proportions whom the townsfolk explain away as almost literally cryptozoological2.
The first part of the novel concerns John as a young man, socially outcast but determinedly excellent at whatever task he set his mind to. John’s father, Ford, dies before he is born, and the former spends the first ten or so years of his life in complete ignorance of the man, before one day stumbling across his legacy in a hidden room in the barn. Thereafter resolute in his desire to live up to the name of his father, the “dragonslayer”, John redoubles his efforts to grow the family homestead into a functioning farm. Catastrophic misfortune and the general inimicality of Bakerites both to John himself and basic humanity in general, however, eventually sends John’s dreams3 and ambitions into a tailspin that ends in a metaphorical storm of destruction.
One is tempted, given some of the context clues, to draw parallels between John Kaltenbrunner and Alexander the Great, especially given that John’s pet name for his tractor, Bucephalus, is the same as Alexander’s horse. Add John’s aura of legend and his odd relationship with his equally legendary and murdered father, and you begin to wonder. It’s hardly a consistent allegory, since there’s no suitable Olympia (Madame Kaltenbrunner is a pitiable lump) and John can’t truly be said to have any conquests of any sort. But the notion of legend is important, even though John’s is, in the public imagination, that of a demon and not a great leader.
After a brief interlude, John finds his way back to Baker in virtual anonymity, and ultimately becomes a garbage man in the company of a squirrely but nice bunch of other social rejects and under the steely, obscene eye of a short misanthrope named Jeffrey Kunstler. John’s lust for revenge against Baker for injustices both recent (mistreatment of “hill scrubs”) and historical (general abuse of John as a child) leads him to foment unrest among his coworkers and begin a general strike, which precipitates a long and malodorous decline of Baker from a red-necked hotbed of beer-lubricated savagery and dirty industry into a green and brown morass of rotten refuse, roaming predators, and mob rule.
“Heinous beyond description”
Laura Miller’s review of the book for the New York Times is perhaps the most execrable review in a pool of the mediocre; I say this not necessarily because the review is negative, but because she seems to fundamentally misunderstand how the book was written. She chalks the hyperbole and tone to the inexperience and arrogance of youth, I suppose under the foolish assumption that tone is a byproduct of the author rather than an intentional construction. “Pretty much everyone in ”Lord of the Barnyard” is angry pretty much all of the time, and nearly all of them are described as contemptible”, she opines, just before additionally criticizing Egolf for not giving John a sexual dimension. It’s apparent that Egolf has contempt for the sort of inbred, racist cesspool of a town he describes4, and has drawn it in bold, broad strokes, just as he has created John as a prodigy and burning messiah (and undoubtedly somewhere on the autism spectrum), and just as he has created his locales, his characters, and his events as somewhat implausible caricatures.
Miller sees this and supposes that Egolf is merely a poor writer5; the connection she’s apparently failed to make is that Lord of the Barnyard is a book about legend. It’s in the tradition of tall tales and Greek myths, which are equally implausible but intended to impart to their readers some kernel of truth about life or the story’s subjects. It makes perfect sense, then, why there is no direct dialogue in the book: it’s intended to read like an oral history, told by an observer, of a person who has become a legend in community history. Narrator reliability, just as in so many other books, is in question; why does John, for instance, appear to be so eloquent even though he’s an uneducated “goatroper”? Because all of John’s words were put into his mouth, just as all of his actions were told in retrospect by an unnamed hill scrub who supposedly pieced the story together from firsthand experience and second-hand reports.
In other words, it should come as neither a surprise nor a disappointment that Baker represents the absolute nadir of civilization, and that its inhabitants are despicable beyond redemption, “the poverty-ridden, uneducated, woebegotten dregs of the peasantry [and a] combative, vulgar, ignorant and hopelessly superstitious people”, and that John returns with a flaming sword to rain salt and sulphur in prose sufficiently Old Testament.
In all this, let’s not forget that, the occasional malapropism aside, Egolf’s prose is torrential but beautiful (in an æsthetics-of-awful sort of way), never quite frothing but always cold and incisive, like a shiny chef’s knife. When Egolf’s describing the rivers of gore and the droning monotony of turkey evisceration, there’s a sort of pornographic appeal to reading a repulsive thing in delightful prose; the same principle applies to all of Baker, the “weeping lesion”, hogtied, gutted, and hung from a lamppost in all its embarrassing repugnance.
Myths are not subtle; their very nature, being handed down orally from generation to generation, precludes it. Lord of the Barnyard is, if you’ll forgive the slapdash comparison, an unconventional latter-day myth about Egolf’s own version of Sodom, and John as the triumvirate of destroying angels. It is thrilling, rapacious, and altogether wonderful.
- In fairness, Mark Luce pairs every criticism with a “…but still good” clause[↩]
- Popular legend is he was birthed on a train, flushed down the toilet, found alongside the tracks in a pile of afterbirth, and thereafter raised by feral humans[↩]
- Specifically, this dream.[↩]
- Perhaps there’s something you can chalk up to arrogance…[↩]
- Her suggestion is that it’s a “book a shrewder novelist would have stashed in a drawer, chalking it up to various lessons learned and letting a second, more polished work serve as his debut.” Thank God Laura Miller is not in charge.[↩]