Braden Hepner’s first novel, Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press), is a Sisyphean tale of a young man yearning for more than warm udders, manure, and the patience to make a straight-line furrow with an old tractor held together with bailing wire. The novel is set on a dairy farm in northern Utah, at the foot of high, foreboding mountains to the east and an open, unfertile desert to the west. It’s sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, and where “John Blair Selvedge worked now, twenty years old, without parents, unknowingly come back to the land of his forbears in the sixth generation, a diesel tractor and a shaftdriven implement with which to work, not an owner of the land, but a daily toiler of it.” John, or “Jack,” as he is most often referred to, labors under his grandfather Blair’s control of the land and the promise that an inheritance might make him the owner and free him for some greater purpose.
But the inheritance is held in limbo until Jack’s ailing grandmother passes away and a decision of the beneficiary distribution of the farm between Jack and his Uncle Elmer can be made. Elmer is an infirm man, with a sturdy plain wife and sickly son, who does his best to lord over Jack in order to assert his claim on the farm. Jack’s father, the rightful heir before his and his wife’s death, had turned his back on the farm in favor of a college education, thus muddying the distribution downstream despite Jack’s dedication and labor. Even after his grandmother’s death and funeral there is uncertainty.
Blair stood alone at the coffin, staring into it as he had into the bed a few nights before, studying its contents. He reached his hand inside and rested it on the remains and before Jack could turn his head for what he saw coming he bent and kissed them. When Jack looked back Blair’s shoulders were buckling, a physical change taking place like a mountain shaken by earth tremors and sliding. The wail that came from the old man’s throat made the joints of the wooden pews buzz and the silence that followed as he pulled in wind was stricken and terrible. He sobbed, his body heaving with the force, and then it was over. He stabbed his eyes with a blunt finger and thumb and turned them red-rimmed upon the gathered. Bleary of face and small-eyed like an aggrieved beast, those two points of red misery searching the congregation for what, Jack?
Hepner’s writing is luxurious. Marvelous work that belies the common setting and roughhewn characters of the small dying town where even the graffiti on the abandoned storefronts is faded. Along with Jack and the Selvedges there is a troupe of languishing young men in their twenties: Seth McQuarters, Roydn Woolums, Balls Murphy, Wrink Paulsen. These boys in men’s clothing wallow in self-pity and long for salvation but are paralyzed to act on their own behalf. They are drawn in the evenings to a little older and wiser peer named Heber Rafuse who has gone away for a time and returned with mystic knowledge. Heber holds Rasputinesque discussions with the others as they gather at his trailer or around a pallet fire near the river. They drink, smoke, ogle the odd girl he brings with him under the stars, and listen to his bombastic philosophies.
—The only rules are the ones you impose upon yourself, and in the end you’ll be immobile and defeated, wrapped up in the restraints of your own peculiar gospel and baffled that everyone has moved on without you because they understood something you didn’t.
—You’re setting yourself up for an asskicking, talking this way.
Jack says this last, and, indeed, there is an uneasy alliance between Heber and Jack when a beautiful young lady from their past reappears in their midst. Rebekah Rainsford, an object of desire, of other. She is dark and new. Familiar yet foreign with maturity and mysterious sexuality. The young men pin their hopes to her. But it is Jack she gives the most reason for hope. Hope, the tattoo she has on her neck, that doesn’t say it but rather “expresses the idea.” She cooks him dinner, and he eats with wild abandon:
He chewed rapidly, his clicking jaw the only sound he made, and took great gulps of water and refilled his glass. It surprised him how he ate, how he wanted to consume her also, how that would be the only satisfying ending to the night, the only filling thing and what he needed to be whole. To feast on her thighs, to relish her plump flesh and wipe his chin clean of the juice.
Among many other things Jack is haunted by wolves. Wolves that he doesn’t first recognize. They seem to be pursuing him.
A squabbling barking rose from somewhere in the land below and carried up the hill to him. Yips and broken howls. Coyotes, he thought, and mad. They sounded frantic, bloodthirsty, roaming through the bottoms in search of whatever pandemonium might be found there. He’d never heard coyotes sound like that, so wild and bold, so strong, and he wondered if he was imagining it.
Wolves out on the land. Danger. In this story there is death on every highway. On every field. In the river and in the shored up feed for the cattle, the bulls, and milk cows that are there on the hoof-packed ground every morning and every afternoon with their udders full. They come like the sun and the moon, as does Jack and his grandfather and the hired boys on the farm. And the old men and minimum-wage boys are there at the co-op buying and distributing feed and medicine and talk on the loading dock. Endless. Sun, moon, morning, and night.
So there is Rebekah. For young men like Jack, their future uncertain and their present habitual, of course there is Rebekah. She is a light, a meteor through the lonely night sky tearing through the invented constellations of valley lore and hope, crashing into the earth like a gem from the gods.
They all want to possess her, to pull her and push against the beautiful life that breaks them. That breaks her.
Hepner wakes the reader at dawn with Jack:
He had rarely had occasion to watch the sun rise, though he’d been awake for the better part of them throughout his life, held inside the barn in deferential supplication to the udders as the sun came to do its own daily work.
Hepner has put in the daily work with this fine novel, its keen words and sentences furrowed like lines eye-measured and trued on a far dying tree in the distance across the alkaline fields of northern Utah. He shows us the cows that come to the milking barn. The men, young and old, who miss the rise of the sun in favor of the touch of flesh-bearing life, sustenance from creatures whose constant bare wisdom help fill the tanks day-after-day with the harvest that well substitutes the milk of our own mortal mothers.
And subtly, slowly, like a rider on horseback, Hepner takes us on a journey along with the broken, shit-begrimed souls of this small town. Until finally, just maybe, someone dares to leave and drive a truck into a night full of stars. Someone who looks up to see new light below the southern horizon where, “The earth glowed as though it harbored an inner fire of its own, as though it were about to be reborn.”
Torrey House Press, 2014
Braden Hepner graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2009 and now lives in Idaho with his wife and son. This is his first novel. You can read more about the author at bradenhepner.com. Read an excerpt of Pale Harvest at terrain.org.
Eat More Books: Jaren Watson interviews Braden Hepner on The Salty Beatnik.