Outside the world of indie rock, John Darnielle is almost unheard of, and even within it he’s not exactly a household name. As the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, a band with a small but extremely devoted cult-following, he’s had to get used to artistic anonymity. If you get it, his music is sensitive and all encompassing, emotionally charged and always well considered. If you don’t, it’s rasping and weird.
Darinelle published his second novel this year. Following his 2014 debut, Wolf in a White Van, the new Universal Harvester is a story set in built out of creepy homes and Iowa cornfields. Darnielle’s songs tend to look back to past times that have disappeared: his childhood in Southern California with an abusive stepfather, or his experiences living as a teenage meth-addict in Portland, Oregon. Universal Harvester, which evokes the pre-digital age of burner phones, fi lm rental and the dial-up internet, is no exception.
It is a mysterious and accomplished work of fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature, described it as ‘moving’ and ‘beautifully etched’, whilst the TSL judged its tone to be ‘bewitchingly and eerily still’. Darnielle’s greatest skill as a songwriter is his ability to write a defined sense of atmosphere, and this ability is extended into his novel; Universal Harvester evokes a world in which nothing changes, where the days ‘roll on like hills too low to give names to.’
The world of indie rock has proved to be fertile ground for novelists. Nick Cave has published prolifically and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists writes fantasy novels for younger readers. Darnielle’s new novel confirms the status that Rolling Stone granted him, that of ‘Rock’s best storyteller’, and supports what fans of the Mountain Goats believed: he deserves more attention than he gets.