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Nashville Scene Children of the Corn

Impressive new debut offers riotous plotting, unfettered narrative

By Charles Wyrick

MAY 3, 1999:  The literary debut of the month belongs to Tristan Egolf, a young author whose Lord of the Barnyard: Killing the Fatted Calf and Arming the Aware in the Cornbelt chronicles the full-throttle trashing of a small Midwestern town. Set in and around the know-nothing, hick village of Baker, Egolf's book is a hilarious and wildly unpredictable spoof of a heartland locale that shows little heart to one of its own.

The story of Baker's downfall begins with a peek at its ending. At the opening of the novel, the city lays in the eerily beautiful after-calm of a massive and violent crisis. As police deputies and struck-dumb townies sift through the rubble of their community, one name is on everyone's lips--Kaltenbrunner.

A simple, hardworking farm boy with a penchant for bad luck, John Kaltenbrunner serves as the vehicle for Egolf's tale. By the author's design, his story is comic and complicated, a meandering tall tale that involves just about everything and everyone in Baker.

Left to take care of his mother after the untimely demise of his father, Kaltenbrunner discovers at an alarmingly early age that he has an unusual gift for agricultural planning. While still a lad, he turns his long dormant homestead into a fully functional and commercially profitable farm. Yet his peculiar knack for farming logistics comes at the cost of his plummeting schoolwork. After the boy is held back several grades, Roy Mentzer, the school's tyrannical principal, devises a special study plan for Kaltenbrunner--solitary confinement.

As our wunderkind loses his grasp on everything he holds dear, he attempts to maintain his teenage sovereignty in a comical front-porch standoff of Alamo-like proportions. Even before the tear gas clears, John is caught, tried, and sentenced to work off his debt to society.

On the basis of his plotting alone, it would be an understatement to call Egolf an imaginative writer. He continually surprises the reader with more out-of-this-world story twists than Tom Robbins--quite a feat for a writer whose fictional milieu consists of henhouses and high school. Yet Egolf makes it all work through his particular genius for narration.

Indeed, the great charm of Lord of the Barnyard lies in the narrator's voice, which recalls a stentorian yet bumbling campfire orator. Ostensibly, this narrator is a citizen of Baker, someone intimately involved in the city's "crisis," yet Egolf never really identifies him. Instead, this person stays cloaked in mystery, existing as a nameless voice, a shadowy presence, the Homer of Baker.

We do know that this person is a member of the all-male Baker garbage service, better known as "hill scrubs." He's one of the lowest of the low, a proud member of the absolute bottom tier of local society. But no one knows that society as well as a garbageman--an endless repository for the "dirt" on the community. In telling Kaltenbrunner's story, the narrator relates everything from historical anecdotes to philosophical digressions on the difference between a Baker redneck and a Baker good-old-boy. As you might guess, a great deal of the book's humor comes from his insights.

Unfortunately, the narration is also problematic. For one thing, the narrator exudes an omniscience beyond his means. This wouldn't be a problem if he didn't try to justify his position in awkward asides; there are at least two instances where Egolf offers some kind of explanation for the storyteller's technique. Maybe this is part of the author's program for his mock heroic, but it seems instead as though he's trying too hard to gather together loose ends.

Egolf's narration can also be overwrought, with sentence structures as gnarled and twisted as an 18-car pileup. The opening of the novel, a feverish 22-line run-on, is a perfect example. Though this style makes for difficult reading, the convoluted poetics give the book a rhapsodic tone. At times they recall the dizzying semantic gymnastics that highlight so much of David Foster Wallace's leviathan novel Infinite Jest. At other times, they're just incoherent.

These criticisms, however, are nitpicky when considering the story as a whole. At its best, Lord of the Barnyard is great spectator sport for misanthropes: To the narrator, there's nothing quite as fun as imagining self-righteous do-gooders getting their churchmobiles riddled with gunfire, or watching beer-drooling miscreants whack each other into a groaning pulp. Overall, this is an extremely impressive debut, a richly detailed, colorful, cornbelt Apocalypse Now. Technical foibles forgiven, Egolf's debut smacks of an inspired ingenuity achieved through comedic narrative fits and outrageous plot mutations.

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