If you are of a certain age, you likely remember the video store as a regular stop on the errands run. And if you grew up in a small American town, you may remember the locally owned video store as a peculiar confluence of people and culture in a place where there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. I have fond memories of our local video store and the woman who owned it, who always made hilariously bad movie recommendations. I could have worked there one summer as a teen but didn’t, and now I wonder if that’s the reason I missed out on a writing career.
Anyway, Universal Harvester by John Darnielle is not about a video store, although it does begin there. Jeremy is working in a small-town Iowa video store, biding his time while he figures out what to do with his life. A couple of customers returning videotapes remark that extra snippets of film footage have been added to the movies. Jeremy investigates and is thrown off kilter by what he sees. He shows the movies to his boss, who happens to recognize a house glimpsed in a snippet of footage, and she drives there to check it out.
You may think you know where this is going. You would be wrong.
This little book is exquisitely written, a meditation on many things, including loss, grief, family, small-town life, Midwest culture, and death (perhaps the “universal harvester” of the title, or does that refer to some piece of farm equipment?). It is about all the things in life that we can’t really know, and as such, there are a lot of unknowns left for the reader. It is in many ways disturbing, unsettling, off kilter, but it is also meditative and mournful. A short book, it will take very little time to read, but you will be left thinking about it long after you’re done.