by John Darnielle
John Darnielle has won a cult following as singer-songwriter for the Mountain Goats, whose lyrics mix evocative poetry, mordant wit and strong narratives. So it came as little surprise when Darnielle published his first novel, Wolf in White Van, to considerable acclaim in 2014. Universal Harvester is the follow-up. Jeremy works in a video rental store in Iowa, where he learns that someone has been splicing short home-made films into popular Hollywood movies. Having watched what seems to be an unsettlingly surreal torture scene, he becomes preoccupied with the creator. So far, so Blair Witch. Then the novel veers off through several characters to explore more pressing questions. Why do different people react so differently to art? Can art help console us when we grieve? Refreshingly, the characters are both credible and unsensational. This is a coming-of-age novel involving people of all ages. Jeremy’s father is trying to move on from the death of his wife. Jeremy’s boss wonders whether life has simply passed her by. This intersects with another plot about vanished mothers, mysterious sects and living with unbearable loss. Darnielle is a genuinely gifted and captivating writer.