The Nasty Eloquence of Provincial Rage: On Ben Metcalf’s ‘Against the Country’

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Rage — like depression, anxiety, megalomania, and even unbridled, manic optimism — may be a sane response to an insane world. (The smothering of these things in the name of “calmness” or “sanity” should at least be met with caution.) But for those of us who aren’t predisposed against rage, its expression may still leave something to be desired. If 2014 was the year of online rage, as some have said, it was also the year of rage often poorly conveyed. Hopefully 2015 can be a year-long declaration of rage unleashed through better words and sentences.

Might 2015, then, be the year of provincial rage? Provincial rage, whether directed outward, toward the coastal megalopolis, or inward, toward the material constraints of rural life, can be a nastily eloquent passion. Partly because of this, it can be a literary necessity. In an America overtaken by the language of media and lobbying power localized in three cities, provincial rage can be used — like a careworn chainsaw — to prune the dead limbs of language. And in a country that seems not to know itself, authentic, literary representations of rural and small-town life — like Lindsay Hunter’s 2014 novel Ugly Girls — can help erode the mountain of televisual clichés that has piled up in the cosmopolitan mind.

It’s a welcome surprise, then, that the first good novel of 2015 is a work of thoroughgoing provincial rage. Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country is a strange, essayistic, and autofictional novel that reads like a series of grievances against family, state, soil, dog, snake, chicken, corn, trash heap, school bus, and, well, nearly every thinkable trapping of life in rural America. The book is nothing short of an encyclopedia of American provincial rage in all its irrepressible hideousness. This makes it a thing of beauty.

Metcalf, who was once the literary editor at Harper’s, cultivates an archaic, idiom-damaged style that meshes two regionalisms: the clarity of Midwestern sentences (he was born in Illinois) and the unabashedly cadence-drunk prose of the American South. This makes sense, given that the book’s target is Virginia, and, more specifically, Goochland, the hilarious but honest-to-God actual name for a town where Thomas Jefferson went to school and where the author was raised.

Against the Country is not “fun to read” in the sense of plot. The book is built, almost entirely, of complaints, and whatever stories emerge are susurrously and slyly told, like whispers to a stranger. The narrator’s tale of how he (and his loaded shotgun) interfaced with a school bus, for example, unfolds almost imperceptibly over several chapters. Fortunately, though, Metcalf inherits, possibly from Melville, the virtue of short chapters. The book does strike me as a Moby Dick stripped of its plot, where nearly every page resembles “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

The novels is hilarious and often uncompromising in its dark humor. (My favorite scene has the narrator debating his teacher about the particulars of circumcision.) And it does stick its sunburnt neck out to take a hard look at racism, homophobia, gender roles, and other issues, although always through the scraped lense of the American provinces. It also deals with the problem of American fathers. The entire book, in a way, is bookended by the father’s decision to move the family to Virginia — the wellspring of the narrator’s complaint — and his later death. (Somehow the novel reminds me of Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father.) Metcalf and his narrator are thankfully unfazed by the obviousness of the father’s influence, and in a single line he gives the lie to an entire way of thinking about literary transmission: “Fathers write, and sons read, and sons then write, and fathers then die before they can read what their sons have written against them.”

Metcalf writes, like William Gass — perhaps our best living provincial writer — to get even. And his “rhetoric of complaint,” as he calls it, is not righteous but desperate:

I do not claim to have any such righteousness at work on my behalf, only that I wish to be heard, and that I will take such measures as are necessary to secure myself a pulpit.

But true rage, worthy or not, comes from desperation, and its articulation from a wish to be heard. Against the Country stands out as one of the more necessary — and most eloquent — expressions of a distinctly American, provincial rage in some years.