Tristan Egolf,
Lord of the Barnyard:
Killing the Fatted Calf &
Arming the Aware in the Corn Belt

(Grove Press, 1998)

Memorable. "A bold and original debut." Dizzying. Outrageous. Knee-slapping. Original. "Of biblical proportions." Brutal. Sordid. Intoxicating. Baroque. Monumental.

These are the kinds of words that grace the front, back and first two pages of Lord of the Barnyard: Killing the Fatted Calf & Arming the Aware in the Corn Belt. There is so much praise lavished upon this one book, that it's enough to give even the eagerest of readers pause. Surely, if it's that good, it should speak for itself, shouldn't it? Besides, isn't the literary market today flooded with unimaginative trash and bad chick-lit? What if this isn't so different? Did I just blow somewhere between $10 and $20 on one of those books that critics love but that no one else can possibly stomach? The answer: Nope. Unbelievable as it may seem, Lord of the Barnyard actually lives up to, and in fact often exceeds, its reputation as a brawling bildungsroman by a boy from Pennsylvania.

The story follows the dirty life and times of John Kaltenbrunner, an Illinois farm boy whose only wish is to be left alone to tend his property. As a matter of fact, he's something of an agricultural prodigy -- at age 9, he's revamped the Kaltenbrunner estate into one of the finest farms in the area. His mother doesn't know what to do with him and he pays little to no attention in school, eventually spending most of his educational career in the in-school suspension room by default. He is the proud owner of a yellow tractor named Bucephalus and an ill-tempered sheep named Isabelle. His father is dead and his mother interferes little in his farming life.

Then, just when he's about to turn 16, everything begins to go horribly wrong, or rather, more wrong than it already is. By the end of the first 130 pages, after several terrible experiences culminating in a hold-out in his house, John has served five years on a barge on the Mississippi and has returned to Baker, the town that has treated him ill almost every minute he spent in it. Moving with a sense of inexorable poetic justice, John bides his time, waiting for his opportunity to strike back. And strike back he will.

An ingenious idea, certainly, that thankfully is treated in a similarly ingenious fashion. It's narrated in a kind of Dostoyevskian first-person -- the narrator definitely took part in the action, but how much of a part or even who exactly the narrator is, is never revealed. There's no dialogue, either. We get the basic gist of what someone has said, but there's no back-and-forth and no time is wasted in idle banter. The tone is journalistic, that of people who mean to tell their story and tell it straight.

However, the story they're telling is so tragic-comical, visceral and, in a satirical way, true to life, that even one of the most pretentious opening sentences I've ever encountered can be forgiven.

Egolf's novel is certainly comical and is one of the finest satires of small-town life this side of Napoleon Dynamite. John Kaltenbrunner, though, isn't as sweet or as easily stomached as Napoleon ever was.

His story aims straight for the throat, not forgetting a punch to the gut on its way. It's not for the faint of heart, whether you're talking in terms of violence, truthfulness or style. But for those with an ear to reality and wild comedy -- or those who've been residents of any small American town -- Lord of the Barnyard provides a wonderful ride and a great time with one interesting farm boy. You may even find it memorable, outraeous or, dare I say, knee-slapping.

by Theo deRoth
18 November 2006

Buy it from