Before starting Tristan Egolf's "Lord of the Barnyard," you would do well to arm your imagination with a hockey goalie's pads and mask, because from the riotous face-off on, the rocket-fueled young author bombards you with sardonic slap shots, point-blank wrist shots and linguistic spin moves. Although he barrels recklessly along the slippery ice of a first novel, his deftness at negotiating the risks creates a bold and original debut.
Egolf devotes his story to one John Kaltenbrunner, a young man who lives, works and fights his way through the hypocrisy, hatred and caste system of Baker, a stateless Midwestern town populated by bands of toughs who punch first and don't even bother to ask questions later. At the age of 9, John already runs the family farm with amazing drive, trading chicken-incubation banter with the old-timers. But his peers don't take kindly to the scraggly kid they call "chicken boy." As he grows older and drives his tractor ("Bucephalus") to school, he suffers unspeakable beatings and insults and triples the local record for hours in detention.
Eventually the tightly wrapped boy snaps: He fights off "Methodist crones" who want to swipe the farm from his widowed mother and burns the compound of a local dope-dealing family. "He still may have been every bit as loathed and abhorred as before," the nameless narrator comments, "but, thenceforth, no one dared even look at him the wrong way." At this point, John is only 15. There are several years, a couple of greased-pig chases, a handful of bar brawls, a sanitation strike and an ending befitting Revelations still to come in this tornado of a novel.
Egolf's energy makes for a fascinating and frustrating read: Why use two adjectives, he seems continually to ask, when you can use six? He practices a form of shotgun writing -- aim in the right direction and spray words on the page -- always searching for another country-fried turn of phrase that will one-up his last one. Even when the prose is overwritten, though, it sizzles. Egolf mixes fable, metaphor and pure anger to attack mob mentality, class warfare, the mindless media and the just-under-the-surface madness of the Midwest. His brilliantly warped, pedal-to-the-metal vision has the obsessive quirkiness of a Pynchon, the rough-and-tumble bad-assness of a Daniel Woodrell and more than a malignant touch of the Faulkner who created the Snopeses.
Late in "Lord of the Barnyard," Egolf mischievously predicts the ways people might respond to his story: "The East-Coast critics would label it a 'redneck inferno.' Charity collections would pour in from south of the Mason-Dixon. West-Coast independents would prattle on about negative Karma in the Corn Belt." He doesn't speculate, though, about Midwestern critics. As a lifelong denizen of the nation's breadbasket who grew up armed and aware in a town not unlike Baker, I can say that out here that kind of lame labelin' and pious prattlin' would most likely lead to a swift pool cue -- the Corn Belt's version of a hockey stick -- to the back of the head. So I will keep it simple. In a seedy bar in one of those seedy towns a few years ago, I heard a tough guy exclaim what, in hindsight, is the highest praise anyone could give an artist such as Egolf: "Shit-fire, Delbert. That thar boy can shore spin a yarn."