It’s been a long, long time since I’ve grieved over finishing a book, but for the past week that’s what I’ve been doing. A week or so ago I finished Don Kurtz’s South of the Big Four. When I was reading it, I knew I loved it. As I neared the end, I dreaded finishing it. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, it has become one of my favorite books. Ever.
Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly summary.
In gracefully unencumbered prose that evokes isolation and loss, this first novel uses the story of two Indiana men in order to pay elegiac tribute to America’s dwindling number of small farmers. At 30, narrator Arthur Conason chooses to live on the deserted property of his late father, a failed farmer, and work the fields for neighbor Gerry Maars. More successful than Arthur’s dad was, the abrasive, resourceful Gerry displays a tenacity that Kurtz clearly means to be emblematic of people who are unable to loosen their ties to a way of life whose increasing hardships break both the heart and the wallet. Though the solitary Arthur keeps his distance from everyone, his relationship with Gerry deepens as he grows to see his employer as a surrogate father. Kurtz effectively portrays the rhythms and the socioeconomic facts of this threatened world, but he stumbles when addressing his characters’ psychological or moral dilemmas. Their motivations remain unclear (e.g., we don’t understand why Arthur drifts in and out of relationships with successive women, or why these women seek him out). But he does handle the novel’s structure skillfully, seamlessly taking Arthur from the present to the past and back to the present as he struggles to come to terms with “an ever more impatient world.”
That’s pretty accurate, but it’s way more than that. It’s simply the best example of rural realism I’ve ever read. It’s not action-packed, but neither is life. Life is hard. Sometimes the good guys win. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there aren’t any traditional good guys. There’s just people. Trying to make it though another harvest. Another year. Another day.
One of the many passages I highlighted in my copy (an awesome, under-used Kindle feature) sounds a lot like a conversation I heard between my uncle and my mom around 1970, and a little like one I had with another angry mom in 2014.
Virtually every line of dialog in this book rings true, and could easily be something I heard growing up and living among farmers and rural people. I felt like I was hearing a compelling story from a friend or neighbor.
I love this book so much.