about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Red Barn
A Review of The Red Barn
by Nat Baldwin

Spencer Dew



One tradition of American carnage—the violence sunk into and characterizing the deep tissue of this country—keeps the gore off-stage. This ancient theatrical trick accentuates the horror, creating a shadow play of shivering dread and aching suspense. All one needs is a fraught trace: a noose, an ax, a word carved into the bark of a tree. A plume of smoke, a bloodied piece of cloth—the inventory is as our history. It is even older if you count the plundered mounds generations of Americans have speculated, fearfully, upon—the stone blade, the amber effigy, the necklace of teeth.

Baldwin is similarly invested in the sinister cast of things, in this case relics of agricultural work so far removed from most contemporary American experience as to be, on its own, alien, slightly disorienting, shockingly brutal in its day-to-day management of death.

This book details banal scenes, saturated with danger—mucking stalls, for instance, to prevent the possibility of moisture in the hay, a potential cause not only of infection, burning a hole “through the lining of the stomach,” but also, counterintuitively, combustion. “Cut hay needs to cure properly,” the narrative voice tells us. Like the voices throughout this book, there is an edge to the words, like the sound of a blade scraping metal. The book builds, then, to atrocities, examined slant-wise at first—birds with “mouths full of meat”—then face-on—“One day one of us tried to escape. He did not make it far. Now he hangs by a beam above. We nailed right through his hands. In the morning I open my eyes. He is the first sight I see.”

Even when mutilation and murder is described, there is the sense that something worse is waiting in the wings. One narrator puts it plainly: “We are lucky to be locked in the barn.” Whatever lurks in the woods is more dangerous.

As in nightmares, muteness becomes a trope: mouths open but “No sound comes out,” or mouths fill with mud or blood and the sound that emerges is something more visceral than words, a gargling that is simultaneously incomprehensible and significant.

Likewise as in nightmare, Baldwin keeps many scenes ambiguous, oscillating between butchery of animals and butchery of people. When a heated blade peels off the skin, including the nipples, are we merely witnessing an early stage in the production of pork? Likewise, charred bones in a farmyard seem harmless enough until remains of sneakers are found intermixed therein. Baldwin milks this technique, particularly, in relation to implements: the bucket, the hammer, the bolt, the blade, each becomes so laden with threat, so associative of trepidation. Baldwin performs a kind of mutilation of language, breaking an image down to so many nouns, offering us the hint of narrative—the suggestive shadow of a story—through a series of blunt objects: “Pitch fork, rake, shovel, sickle, scythe, grinder, clippers, cutters, pipe.” As a result, we cannot but stare into the darkness between these words, searching for some horrible shape, some grotesque scene.

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