GOLDEN ROD. Bram Riddlebarger. Gob Pile Press, 2021. 238 pages.
Sometimes a heavenly brain damage comes along and shakes things up. I had been reading so-so novels and then the spring snowstorm of April 18, 2022 came along and knocked out power throughout the Southern Tier of New York State. I happen to live where the Southern Tier touches the Catskill Mountains, right in the bullseye of this storm, which dropped a foot of heavy, wet, mean snow all over and destroyed trees and telephone poles, wrecking everything.
A lack of electricity focuses one’s mind. No streetlights when the sun goes down, everything plunged into darkness. I just had power flashlights. It was by this light that I burned through Bram Riddlebarger’s 2021 novel Golden Rod. I urge you, if you read this novel—which you should—to replicate my environment: turn your temperature down to 55°, shut off all your lights, get under about a foot of woolly mammoth skins like a caveman, and read the thing by flashlight in one sitting into the wee hours. It is a reading experience like no other. It was for me. I could almost see my own breath (let’s not exaggerate).
The surreal novel is about a group of outcasts and drop outs who somehow find each other in the woods in what I presume to be Southeast Ohio, since that is where Riddlebarger is from, but essentially it could be any wooded wilderness in America. Jack is a strange, troubled man who lives rough in a Ford pickup truck with his dog Sid. He subsists off of tea, which he is somewhat addicted to. Jack is relentlessly pursued by something called the Yellow, which is essentially an euphemism for having a discolored dick, which “clung to him like a Post-it note stuck to his front.” Jack through the course of events comes into possession of a black-powder rifle called the Pits which is gay (“out of the closet,” get it?) and might be the reincarnation of Andy Warhol. Some roving Rangers and officers of the law pop in and out of the text and cause trouble: they like to find drifters and invite them to play the board game Risk, which doesn’t end well. Jack meets another wild man named the Revolutionary after a long stay in an institution (Sid is adopted by the Revolutionary meantime, so that Jack’s only company for a while is the ghost of Sid, and the dog and its ghost find an easy companionship with their humans). Everything out of the Revolutionary’s mouth has some programmatic, political angle:
“The Europeans were right,” said the Revolutionary….
“Oh yeah?” said Jack. “About what?”
Jack was sucking on a white quartz lucky stone to stave off his hunger and thirst. Dead Orange Creek had run dry.
“Bathing,” said the Revolutionary.
“It’s a good idea not to bathe very often,” said the Revolutionary, scratching at his armpit. “Although it’s uncomfortable at first, the bacteria need to find a natural rhythm.”
Everyone in the novel has ideas about the Correct Way to Live Life. Over the course of the tale these two meet up with Hippie Girl, who grows weed in the forest, miraculously produces a baby latched to her breast entitled Milk Tick, and adds some feminine flavor to their group, which seems to magnetically attract more oddballs and characters. Sometimes it’s not clear whether these characters are meant to be real people or some kind of woodland spirits—no matter whether they be real or mythical, they all seem to persist with pointless, unhelpful routines.
At times the group is referred to as the Locavores, and indeed much of the story is about their struggle to do the primal tasks of hunting and gathering. Survival against the elements and the odds has never been more hilarious. Yes, the book is laugh-out-loud funny in places. I say this as somebody who rarely does anything beyond cracking a light smirk when something funny happens in a book; it takes something special to make me audibly laugh. Riddlebarger has this power.
The humor comes from the voice and the narration which is loose, frisky, and playful. The prose is very sparse and deceptively simple—what is there seems to have been boiled off like sap only leaving the sweetness behind. Seb Doubinsky in a blurb on the novel drew comparisons to Brautigan and Tom Robbins. Merle Haggard (or his disembodied voice) is actually claimed to be part of the wallpaper of the novel Golden Rod, but at times becomes a character, commenting via dialogue here and there:
Jack lay down on his belly and scooted forward on his elbows as if he were stalking a group of deer just on the other side of nowhere.
“Hey, you can’t use that.”
“Shut up, Merle Haggard. Just go back to being the backing track.”
“But that’s a Kris Kristofferson lyric. He’s a friend of mine.”
“I know, it sounds poetic, and it fits the situation. Besides, it’s a good tip of the hat.”
“Fine. But you should respect the artist.”
“I do, I do. Now just let me get back to this.”
The novel is full of such funny, teasing, cute interludes. If I were hard pressed I’d say the narrator’s voice of the novel is in fact like an alt-country western singer, grizzled, speaking from the end of the world, with a powerful wind blowing and everybody’s spirits mysteriously remaining high even in the face of starvation and despair. This is not Samuel Beckett; there is an undeniable optimism thrumming through the book. Mostly.
Some events take place towards the end of the book which are staggering that I won’t give away, suffice it to say that while some people live their lives as a countercultural diversion or a political statement, others have no choice.
Some books just come on you at the right time, in the dead of night. Besides being the editor in chief of Gob Pile Press, which has published other scorchers of authenticity like Alan ten-Hoeve’s soulful poetry classic Notes From A Wood-Paneled Basement, Riddlebarger’s a wry geomancer who with seemingly little effort weaves a magic fictional spell, takes you to the woods, keeps you warm against the elements and loneliness. All that’s needed is a dark night and a flashlight.