cover image Against the Country

Against the Country

Ben Metcalf. Random, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6269-0

Metcalf, essayist and former literary editor of Harper’s, debuts with a virtuosic tour de force of Southern malfeasance. The largely plotless narrative records a rural boyhood in Goochland County, Va., the narrator’s relationship with his ever-vengeful father, and the rigors of farm-life. Sprawling and underpopulated, Goochland is the setting for the indignities of grade school, boozy first love, rejection of “the killer-God idea,” and salvation in literature. But even amid the requisite episodes of racial disharmony and religious fervor, Metcalf’s storytelling often digresses, and, in short sections with titles like “I Feared the Corn,” he obsesses over every particular of the land. From blackberries, chickens, and ringworm to meditations on Jehovah’s Witnesses and an appendix on dogs, the all-American life is lovingly deconstructed in a passionate screed that feels like a confession from the tortured heart of the South itself. But even in envying Thomas Jefferson “his idyllic hallucinations” and damning “this flytrap of a county,” Metcalf composes a relentlessly articulate paean to the American project. In the end, this isn’t a Southern novel, because it isn’t exactly a novel. It’s more like man’s revenge on God for the world he made—and anyone who disagrees must be a Yankee. (Jan.)