Nat Baldwin, The Red Barn, Calamari Archive Ink., 2017
I take the book camping. The other campers at my site have long been in their tents—phones upraised by silhouettes if they have reception, books if they don't. Before diving into my own tent, I brush my teeth and spit the paste's residue on the vertebrae of some dead animal. An elk or a cow, my fellow campers couldn't decide. We followed the trail of bones earlier in the day—cloven hoof, hipbone, and femur.
In the tent now, red like the barn (in the book), I unroll my socks, crack my toe knuckles, knob the lantern on, and begin reading: "I watch through a crack in the back of the barn. The sound tears up from the gut through the throat." Shit. It's been awhile since I've felt intimidated by a book. At just 82 pages, though, I dig in, thinking I can outpace the effects of the psychological horror. Not so.
By page 15, I'm feeling shifty. Baldwin's syntax is staccato. His tone, macabre. The perspective is angular, like a camera planted on a busted tripod. The reader wades through paragraphs predicated on absence; if it's noticeably missing, it's meaningful. Responding to an ad in the paper, a protagonist is ready to work. He arrives "ready to tend animals, sow crops," but "there were no animals, no crops." After whiffs of tension, Baldwin cuts to the quick: evidence literally heaps in the conspicuous burn pile. There are bones "too big to be rabbit. There was flesh still attached to the bone."
I hear snorting outside my tent. Javelina are passing through. I start to sweat. I horripilate. I imagine their snouts, inhaling the memory of meat on the scattered bones.
By the time a sneaker is discovered in the burn pile, it's obvious the narrator is in danger. "Other things found in the burn pile: knife handle, melted blade, tree limb clippers, chair." Here, I'm reminded of Butch's progression of weapons in Pulp Fiction: claw hammer, baseball bat, chainsaw. Or the revenge regimen Marsellus has planned for "hillbilly boy." Pipe, pliers, blowtorch: "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass."
Between stories, I set down the book. The spine pitches upward while the front and back covers angle down like the rusted-out blood-soaked roofing of the red barn itself. Inside, each page is designed to evoke barn; whether it's the wood beams above and below the text or the scrap of corrugated metal announcing Part III, Calamari Archive (per usual) is in the business of producing book+art.
Baldwin writes with the minimalist intensity of Annie Proulx. The last time fiction unnerved me this good was her two-paragraph "55 Miles to the Gas Pump." Only, Baldwin doesn't spell it all out so clearly. He is narratively withdrawn, more interested in investing the page with the blunt force of language, the specter of unfinished business.
While The Red Barn has its choice scenes of bondage and gothic crucifixion, the violence is rarely conveyed via panicky tenor (only one chilling run-on comes to mind). In "Z's Bones," for example, a juvenile narrator, not unlike a young Stephen Daedalus (i.e., Baby Tuckoo) describes their vantage after breaking into school: "From the roof I could see the whole town I could see the ocean I could see cars and graves and boats and trees." It's an unusually airy moment, balancing the cryptic claustrophobia found elsewhere in The Red Barn.
I finish the book, turn off my lantern, and scroll through my iPod for a song before sleep. Trying to find something to match the psychological disarrangement triggered by Baldwin's debut, I select Tom Waits' "What's He Building in There?" Waits asks the titular question eleven times, each iteration more demanding than the last. It becomes increasingly unclear over the course of the track whether He is really "hiding something from the rest of us" or if the plural first-person is making much ado about nothing, if curiosity is just festering into raw paranoia. The Red Barn is what would have become of Waits' song had the question been asked eleven more times. It is the dreaded answer: "our mouths fill up with blood," and we are made to choke it down. [LL]