South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz

I bought this book years ago because it was called by Haven Kimmel “simply the finest novel ever written about the Midwest” (on her blog), and I’m finally getting to it. It is a very fine, bleak novel, set in 1990s Indiana. Thirty-year-old Arthur has returned home from Michigan after work ran out up there; now he’s camped out in his family’s abandoned farmhouse, on the edge of their former farm. We meet him at this moment, as he rigs lighting and heat, reencounters his brother and sister-in-law, and takes a job as hired hand to Gerry Maars, successful farmer and local big man in some complicated ways. Arthur is taciturn and simple in his tastes. He seems as surprised as perhaps the reader is, that he is so contented to run Gerry’s big machinery for him up and down the wintry fields at all hours and fall into bed tired for short spells in between. He also finds himself in a few damaging love affairs (least damaging to Arthur himself).

At well over 300 pages, South of the Big Four is a quiet novel in terms of plot. There are a number of events, but the overall impression is that of rhythmic, nearly numb repetition: the tractors go up and down the field; their parts break and are repaired or replaced; corn and beans are planted and harvested and sold and planted again. Gerry Maars is a fascinating character. City councilman, large personality, workaholic, self-aggrandizing and insecure, he casts a huge shadow and takes Arthur in completely, in ways that Arthur never quite articulates. The portrayal of north central Indiana is stark and desolate, and feels real enough to me (not that this is a region I know well at all). Its people are chapped and stark as well. No one in this story is happy. Remembering his 4-H steer, Arthur muses, “the last time I saw Sunshine he was frolicking his way out across that wide slaughterhouse holding pen, cantering and capering, glad to just finally be free.” That about captures the tone.

With Arthur as first-person narrator and protagonist, this is very much a book about the male experience; women are sexual partners and helpmeets. The perspective felt limited to me. It’s certainly a beautifully written book, and one that kept pulling me back: I was magnetized by its hypnotic pulse, “back and forth across an empty winter field.” It holds wisdom. But also not much beauty, or hope, and nary a likeable character. Rather, what it offers is perseverence. “The better, it seemed, in an ever more impatient world, to venture on anyway–unheralded and unprofitable; mortal, but still unaccountably alive.” I was not left feeling uplifted – and that’s not something I generally require of a book, but I felt the absence here of… something. A very fine novel, indeed. If I figure out what I’m missing, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 farm magazines.

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