Lord of the Barnyard: Killing the Fatted Calf and Arming the Aware in the Corn Belt

Tristan Egolf, Author
Tristan Egolf, Author Grove/Atlantic $24 (432p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1641-3
Paperback - 410 pages - 978-0-8021-3672-5
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The growing legend surrounding the author (he was discovered by the daughter of prominent French novelist Patrick Modiano; see ""Hot Deals,"" Aug. 24) threatens to create unusually high expectations for this bright but uneven debut novel published first in England. It's a wild ride of a book, prone to stretches of excess, but also possessed of a manic, epic energy. It begins ferociously, thrusting the reader into the aftermath of the explosive melee that has torn apart Baker, a Midwestern town besotted by ne'er-do-wells and thieving churchgoers and rotting with municipal decay. As the narrative works backward, the ""notorious"" John Kaltenbrunner becomes the focus of the story. Described by his peers as ""the freak on the tractor, the corncrib fascist, the troglodytic goatroper from just north of the river,"" John is a driven, determined boy who proves capable of single-handedly reviving an entire farm by the age of nine. In dysfunctional Baker, however, John draws ire in direct proportion to his prodigious talents. Soon he's been run off his land, siphoned penniless and exiled to a floating work-camp on a blighted river. John eventually returns to Baker, only to find the town as horror-stricken as ever. After washing out of innumerable menial jobs, John finally obtains work as a garbage collector, which leads to a lengthy showdown between the ""Hill Scrubs"" (John and his fellow garbagemen) and the rest of the community. Soon the town is awash in garbage and John and his fellows are hunted men. Told from the point of view of one of the locals, the novel reads much like an eyewitness account made available for the public record. What drives this book at times also derails it, as Egolf's gift for depicting comic misfortune--initially entrancing--suffers from overuse. By the book's latter half the disasters have become expected, the tropes repetitive and John's growth as a character stunted. Despite this, Egolf's robust and intoxicating prose shows great promise. (Mar.)
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