Yates is from Springfield, Missouri, and weaves his saga around a Springfield legend he encountered as a child, about a farm, once a model farm, that declined to the point it was overrun with thugs and libertines. It’s the refined, disciplined past versus ignorant, decadent modernity. Or: build a paradise, and the barbarians will come.
“Emerald Farm” all began with a self-made man—a working man, Frank Headley—in the 1920s. Headley established an exemplary dairy. He built a stone silo and stables. He raised fine horses and trotted them around a track. He dug a forty-acre lake and folks from Springfield came out for excursions, as well as to ride through Headley’s cave. (This last seems to be a reference to Fantastic Caverns.) Then Headley’s lungs forced him to sell out and move to Arizona.
Enter the rich Sheehy family and the beginning of decadence. They keep apart from the community and seem to think themselves superior, though they’ve never really done anything. They learn to farm but share little of Headley’s genius. The family slowly dies out, and Headley’s hard-won creation begins to seem cursed by accidents and disease. One Sheehy dies of a flesh-eating cancer.
The last Sheehy will be Hettienne, a tall, pale girl with intense blue eyes. She has visions that Yates calls fits, though these fits don’t seem to be physiological. They’re part of the family curse. Hettienne envisions Goths and bikers and other decadent folk, dancing down by the river, vandalizing the stables and the old mansion, and setting fire to all. Echoes of Faulkner here, maybe Hawthorne.
Hettienne’s visions are real, but still the curse is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One night, wandering in her sleep, she covers herself in a white, luminescent horse liniment. Her favorite uncle, James, discovers her, and to protect her from a family eager to tear her away from Emerald Farm (and maybe place her in psychiatric care), he guides her down to the creek to wash off. In the half-light, James and Hettienne make out trespassing soldiers, home from WWII, cavorting with their dates. James covers himself with white liniment, too, and the two descend on the intruders as “streaked hillbilly djinn,” crying doom. From this incident, the legend of the crazy albinos is born, and becomes a gratifying tale of evil for evangelical Springfield. The splendid old farm hurtles toward ruin.
James is the most sympathetic character in the novel, and his relationship with Hettienne the most appealing. His death, years later, takes up several moving chapters that bring out all the family at their best and worst.
And the scenes featuring James inspire some of Yates’s finest writing. Consider this sharp image: “James’s bedroom smelled of urine masked with rosewater.” How better could you describe a sick man’s room? So much misery is expressed in just eight words.
At the Catholic hospital, where officials have concluded that James’s fall from the rock silo was suicidal, and where James lies comatose, Hettienne’s maiden aunts “hunched like two pissed barn cats” at the doctor’s arrival. Have you ever been around a barn, with its half-wild cats? Again and again, Yates makes these precise comparisons, all of them a delight to read.
The downside of such rich language is that it slows the pacing. But this is a literary novel, not an overwrought thriller from Doubleday. Yates makes rather a point of this when Hettienne and her new husband, Wes, visit a local hamburger dive, and Wes snootily wonders why anyone would eat in such a place. Hettienne’s unlikely, postmodern rejoinder: “There is no truth . . . only narrative style.” Maybe so, and Yates’s lush narrative is certainly admirable, but such exchanges will make some readers root for the barbarians.
Yates gets at something, though. When I was a kid, I tagged along with my dad, an electrician, all through the Missouri counties of Texas and Wright. More than once I saw some grand enterprise go up, where some fellow from St. Louis or Chicago built a fine house, put up showy fences with a fancy gate, and hired a bulldozer to dig ponds and scrape the blackjacks off the hills. The man ran cattle, maybe a few horses, and in five years he was broke, his pastures sprouted oaks again, and the locals, who knew all along the outsider would fail, descended like vultures on the poor Chicagoan’s auction. Historically, the Ozarks is an insular region steeped in poverty. It’s fine when some good old boy strikes it rich—the original Mr. Headley. Outsiders, no matter how blameless, are asking for it. Those hicks you thought were so primitive will feast on your demise.