The Long Dry by Cynan Jones is the third book that Coffee House Press has released in the United States and though it doesn’t have some of the mystery and action that provides a sense of urgency to his previous novel, Everything I Found on the Beach, The Long Dry is still a driving novel in its own right, which is due in some part to the slim chapters and clever sequencing of the book.
The book opens with Gareth, a farmer in the Welsh countryside, telling his wife that a pregnant cow has wandered out of the barn Much of the novel unfolds as Gareth tracks the cow, which is nearly ready to deliver her calf. Though the story takes place over the course of a day, Jones hops between the past and the future of the family to provide three-dimensional and compelling characters.
Gareth’s narrative, filtered through a very tight third person point of view, carries the bulk of the narrative, but Jones also works in the experiences of his wife, Karen, and children, Dylan and Emmy in interspersed sections. It is through the histories and futures of these characters, that we see the complexities of the family’s life and the unrelenting cruelness of rural life.
The success of this novel hinges on the parallel between human loss, a miscarriage that Karen carries with her like a phantom limb, and the miscarriages of the cattle. With each stillborn calf, Karen is haunted anew and emotionally drifts away from Gareth. Thus the wandering cow carries the burden of expectation. (Will she be the one who breaks the cycle of death that looms over the farm during a terrible drought?)
Where as the detailed processes of the slaughterhouse in Everything I Found on the Beach has a Joycean quality, the attention to microcosms (or what Italo Calvino calls multiplicities) in The Long Dry often remind me of Cormac McCarthy (which is a comparison Jones gets frequently). Though not as apocalyptic in his approach, Jones captures eloquently the savage beauty of the world in a way that is far more empathetic than McCarthy. We see an example of this kindness is a scene where Gareth and his brother must kill a rabbit and things go poorly:
He hit the rabbit with the edge of the stone. He hit it as hard as he though he should but he couldn’t bring himself to want to hurt the rabbit, which was necessary, so the rabbit jerked under his foot and its back legs stretched and kicked. He hit it again in the in the neck where he had hit it before and there was a lot of muscle there and now the mouth was open and the tiny teeth showed, and the eye looked at him black and flashing fear. Then he knew he had hurt the rabbit and in him was the horrible panic of knowing something like this.
Here one sees the difference in perspective from Jones’ characters in Everything I Found on the Beach, where the undoing of an animal was a means to an end of productivity. In fact, Jones treats us to sections where the point of view comes by way of the wandering cow, which reminds me of the way in which McCarthy provides the perspective the eyes of a wolf in The Crossing.
If there is any bone to pick with The Long Dry, it’s with its end, which seems to wrap up a bit too conveniently, and though it shows hope, which is quite welcomed, it reads a bit like a miracle rather than coincidence and doesn’t quite carry with it the desired effect I imagine Jones likely sought.
The Long Dry carries with it the burden of exploring the converging worlds of an expanding cityscape during a time of economic change, unforgiving acts of nature, the trauma of miscarriage, and the complexities of running a farm through it all, but Jones deftly sequences his readers through the paces in a way which each of these concepts play with one another. Despite my minor criticism of the ending, it’s a wholly compelling book with a cast of hard-edged but sympathetic and dynamic characters because Jones’s lines propel us, enthrall us, and break our hearts.
The Long Dry
by Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press; 136 p.