John Darnielle Is the Voice of Outcasts and Weirdos Everywhere
Photo by Alex Boerner

John Darnielle Is the Voice of Outcasts and Weirdos Everywhere

We spent the day with the author and Mountain Goats frontman to talk about his excellent novel 'Universal Harvester,' mosh pits, and North Carolina politics.
February 8, 2017, 5:00am

John Darnielle, professional novelist and Mountain Goats founder, misses moshing. "I haven't been in a mosh pit in years. I miss it. I miss the pit," he tells me over fancy pizza and beer in downtown Durham, North Carolina, where he's lived for more than a decade. "So many pits are less violent than they look. I was in a pit at Maryland Deathfest in 2007; I took a knee, and they immediately helped me back up because it was a good pit. But because I was getting older, I couldn't just walk it off—I was limping for a week." At a certain point in every metal fan's life, he says, "You age out of the pit. You can pit if you want, but it's going to take you a while to recover." Just when I think Darnielle has told me a parable about aging, his face lights up. "I should get back in the pit next year. I'm turning 50. I should do it."

Darnielle tends to think a lot about the ways people interact with places, whether that place is a mosh pit, a progressive Southern city like Durham, or a tiny town in Midwestern flyover country, which is the setting for his second novel, Universal Harvester, which came out this week, and VICE magazine excerpted last October. The book is about a group of people who work at a video-rental place in Nevada, Iowa, and begin encountering a series of disturbing images grafted onto tapes for movies such as She's All That and Targets. It's presented in the form of an inverted mystery, and reads like something Denis Johnson might come up with if you tasked him with ghostwriting one of Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Wobegon" monologues. But more than that, it's a book about life in small-town Iowa—its rhythms and customs, its gravitational pull, the histories hidden within the bones of buildings and ground up in the dirt.

"One of the big questions in the book is who somebody is and where they're from," the California native tells me. Universal Harvester has its roots in Darnielle's attempts to write dialogue mirroring the conversations he heard during the eight or so years he spent living in Iowa, first in the small town of Grinnell, then the even smaller town of Colo, and finally in the city of Ames. Though Darnielle grew up mostly in Southern California, he moved to the state in the mid 90s to be with his girlfriend (who later became his wife) and came to appreciate the distinct Midwestern vibe. Iowans, he says admiringly, "will spend hours trying to trace where people are and how they're doing. It's this back-and-forth world-building, like they're drawing a map."

All photos by Alex Boerner

In conversation, Darnielle maintains a childlike sense of curiosity while displaying the acumen of a studied political radical who also holds a PhD in literature. We're now sitting in his office, located inside a converted textile mill in Durham that now offers studio space for artists. While posing for photos, he interrupts the proceedings to have me hand him a gnarled wooden staff leaned up next to an incense burner. Staff in hand, the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual visible above his left shoulder, Gamescience dice logo across his chest, he looks sternly into the camera for a few snaps, only to break a smile and proclaim, "This is the best picture of me ever taken." A moment later, he asks, "How's the hand placement on the staff?" cracking up when he realizes he's inadvertently made a dick joke.

Toys, comics, and books litter his office, the shelves containing a range of topics: the occult, Polish poetry, 1970s experimental science fiction, and at least six books on boxing (Darnielle has written songs about fighters Muhammad Ali and Pinklon Thomas, and there's a boxer on the cover of the Mountain Goats' 2006 album, Get Lonely). He speaks at a breakneck pace, often veering on tangents and fishing his laptop out of his desk to pull up a YouTube video or show me a website he's particularly stoked on (also, he uses words like "stoked" and "bitchin'" with complete sincerity). Though my initial conversation with Darnielle takes place before noon, he spends much of our interview munching on Bottle Caps hard candy, yielding a charming incongruity once he starts extolling the virtues of the French "New Novel" movement. "I write to find stuff out," he says. "I'm not writing to teach—I'm writing to explore and share my explorations. It's kind of like show-and-tell, or a treasure hunt."

"My books, all they do is pull back one curtain after another."

Though he's still better known for his work as the lead singer of the popular indie rock band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle is not, to paraphrase Fabio in Zoolander, a musician "slash" author. Instead, it's more instructive to view Darnielle as a writer who happens to work in both prose and songwriting forms (occasionally those forms will nearly unite, such as when he wrote a 33 1/3 book about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality). Darnielle put out his first work as the Mountain Goats in 1991. Back then the band was just him playing guitar and yawping into a boombox, telling vivid stories of weirdos and outcasts that were packed to the brim with metaphor and allusion. Even as he fleshed the group out into a full band, it's always been his lyrics that have drawn fans in. The band's most beloved song, 2002's "This Year," has the anthemic feel of Springsteen's "Thunder Road," except it's about a kid seeking respite from his abusive stepfather by getting drunk at an arcade and announcing, "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me."

Many of Darnielle's albums work within a central theme––there have been Mountain Goats albums devoted to tracking a decaying marriage (Tallahassee), the Bible (The Life of the World to Come), pro wrestling (Beat the Champ), and Darnielle's adolescence spent weathering abuses both physical and chemical (The Sunset Tree). "There's a literary sensibility there," says Sean McDonald, Darnielle's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux of his songwriting. "He knows a lot about crafting stories—how much to tell and how much to communicate, but also preserve a sense of mystery."

Darnielle's pedigree as a novelist is impressive in its own right. His debut novel Wolf in White Van was longlisted for a 2014 National Book Award, and  Universal Harvester has already received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. Regardless of medium, Darnielle's work appeals to a specific personality archetype: geeky and sweet, probably a little socially awkward, maybe trying to process some pretty serious stuff from their past. "He has a talent for extreme empathy that gives all of his characters an instant sense of genuine humanity," says McDonald. "And the 'extreme' part of that empathy gives his novels a real sense of urgency."

"My books, all they do is pull back one curtain after another," Darnielle tells me. Wolf in White Van centers around its narrator Sean Phillips, a reclusive analog gaming mini-mogul whose face is so disfigured that the scarred flesh at the front of his skull hardly counts as a face at all. The story is told largely in reverse, each chapter providing context as to how Sean's damaged past has led to his bleak present. It's an overtly disturbing book: A pair of teens get so immersed in Sean's game Trace Italian that one of them ends up dying, and there is the distinct suggestion that Satan's fingers have been guiding Sean's actions without his knowledge, and the narrative's reverse chronology helps build a sense of dread that yields one horrifying payoff after another. Universal Harvester, meanwhile, takes a more conventional narrative tack—that is, until a quarter of the way through, when a bold metafictional move suddenly implicates one of the characters in the unsettling shit that's gone down, and will continue to go down, sullying the unspoken contract of trust between narrator and reader.

There's a certain subset of Mountain Goats fan who tends to conflate their love of Darnielle's work with a love of Darnielle himself, and the vehemence with which those fans express that love—Darnielle once had to tell fans on the official Mountain Goats forum, "I don't want any more presents"—has a tendency to freak him out. "I don't want anyone thinking I'm special," he tells me. "This has been going on since the age of the Romantics, but I think that gets exaggerated to the point of imputing good qualities onto the person… It makes me really uncomfortable for people to think even that I'm cool. I'm just a guy with a skill set."

"I'm not writing to teach—I'm writing to explore and share my explorations. It's kind of like show-and-tell, or a treasure hunt."

"He's an intensely private dude, but he's also intensely public," explains Grayson Currin, the former editor of the Durham-based INDY Week alt-weekly and a prominent local organizer. In many ways, Darnielle is a public intellectual, using the platform that his skill set's provided him to speak on a whole range of subjects, many of which have to do with North Carolina itself. "I think John's come to believe in the goodness of North Carolina, that it's worth fighting for acceptance and equality here," Currin continues. "Having someone with that big of a signal and that unapologetic of a voice only helps the fight for progress in North Carolina."

As North Carolina's Republican-controlled general assembly steadily spent the past few years working to pass legislation restricting abortion access, rolling back the voting rights of minorities, and passing a bill sanctioning discrimination against trans people, the novelist and musician has distinguished himself as an outspoken supporter of the state's progressive movement. But while Darnielle is a deeply political person, he does not consider himself a political artist. "You don't write songs that occupy a cross-section of heady emotional work, fantasy worlds, and maybe comedy," he says, "[and then] suddenly go, 'You know what else I'm good at? Protest music!' 'The Times They Are A-Changin''—that's not my beat."

Instead, he tries to recognize that because his work has garnered him a sizable fan base, he can make himself of use to causes he cares deeply about. He frequently plays benefit shows in North Carolina where proceeds go toward progressive political organizations, donates his own money to many of those same groups, and uses his robust Twitter following to amplify the voices and perspectives of others. "That's privilege," he says, "and I can put it into play."

John Darnielle the private citizen has also donated his body to the cause, serving as a steady presence at North Carolina's widely celebrated Moral Mondays demonstrations, in which hundreds of people showed up each week to the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh to protest a different piece of draconian legislation being considered by the Republican-controlled legislature. He recalls one Moral Monday in particular, when he and his family showed up to the State House to protest Republicans' controversial decision to sneak language restricting abortion access into a bill about motorcycle safety. If that wasn't underhanded enough, Republican legislators had coordinated to come back early from lunch to vote on the measure while their Democratic colleagues weren't even in the room. As the Darnielle family and other protesters in the chamber realized what was going on, "We all started spontaneously yelling, 'Shame!' It was a huge moment for me—it was just like being in the fuckin' pit!"

Darnielle's youthful exuberance is showing through again, but he's got a point to make. "Solidarity's power, man," he says. In the coming years, "We're gonna need a lot of it."

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle is available in bookstores and online from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.