On the Beat

John Darnielle climbs every mountain

John Darnielle, best-known as frontman of Durham indie-folk group Mountain Goats, has a growing parallel career as an acclaimed author with his second novel “Universal Harvester.”
John Darnielle, best-known as frontman of Durham indie-folk group Mountain Goats, has a growing parallel career as an acclaimed author with his second novel “Universal Harvester.”

Upon finishing a book, it’s common for authors to sit back, take a breath and relax. But that’s not how John Darnielle operates, because he’s an artist with an almost maniacal work ethic.

Between writing books and releasing records with his folk-rock group Mountain Goats, Darnielle works pretty much non-stop. And shortly after he sent his first novel off to the publisher – 2014’s hugely acclaimed “Wolf in White Van” – Darnielle kept right on writing. By the time the “Wolf” manuscript came back for edits a month or so later, he had already written the beginnings of his second novel, the just-published “Universal Harvester” (FSG, $25).

“I like to work,” Darnielle said on a recent morning at his writing office space at Durham’s Golden Belt complex. “A good day is if I’ve worked a lot. And while ‘Wolf’ was in process with edits and everything else, this book germinated into forbidden fruit I’d be allowed to come back to. Writing prose for me is the thing that is to be wanted, to look forward to. It’s like video-game time: ‘Finish all the other stuff, and I get to kill Nazis.’ 

Given the success of its predecessor, anticipation for “Universal Harvester” is great. “Wolf in White Van” was a universally acclaimed best-seller that picked up a long-list National Book Award nomination. And with 55,000 copies of “Wolf” in print, Darnielle is on the verge of becoming better-known for books than music.

“Universal Harvester” is already adding to his reputation. A recent Washington Post review called it “a stellar encore” to his first book, also noting its “undercurrent of humanity and hope” beneath the darkness of the story.

“One of the amazing and unbelievable things I get to say from time to time is that I know John Darnielle a little,” comedian and longtime Mountain Goats fan John Hodgman said in a 2015 News & Observer interview. “A great and unexpected privilege of becoming a famous minor television personality is getting to meet heroes like him. He was already one of the greatest writers of our age even before writing a novel. He knows how to do stuff.”

From Dionne to Darkthrone

The 49-year-old Darnielle grew up in California, where his formative experiences included surviving his parents’ divorce, weathering a serious drug problem and working as a licensed nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Writing always came naturally. For his seventh birthday, Darnielle got a typewriter and immediately used it to write a short story about a bugle that ran away from a music shop.

Eventually, Darnielle started writing and recording songs under the name Mountain Goats (a reference to the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins blues song “Yellow Coat”), using cheap guitars and boomboxes. By the time Mountain Goats had evolved beyond a one-man band and graduated to studio recordings starting with 2002’s “Tallahassee,” Darnielle’s raw, vividly intense story-songs about damaged people and their travails had earned him a rabid cult following.

In late 2003, Darnielle moved from Iowa to the Triangle when his wife Lalitree Darnielle got a job at UNC-Chapel Hill. They settled in Durham and now have two sons, ages 5 and 2. Durham suits Darnielle, a person of affable quirks and wide-ranging tastes – he’s an enthusiastic fan of everything from black metal to the Christian pop of Rich Mullins.

He might be the hardest person on earth to pigeonhole. When Darnielle contributed a piece to the 2007 essay collection “Marooned,” the album he wrote about as the “desert island disc” he couldn’t live without was “Legends,” a compilation of soft late-period hits by pop-soul singer Dionne Warwick. And a highlight of the 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival was Darnielle playing a piano set of heavy-metal songs by the likes of Dio and Norwegian black-metal band Darkthrone.

While Darnielle’s music makes an intriguing backdrop for his writing, he keeps them separate as best he can. You’ll find comic books and toys in his office, but not a guitar because he uses that space just for prose-writing. Don’t come to any of his upcoming book-reading events expecting to hear a song, either.

“Sometimes I’ll write something, a phrase I like, and then tease that into a song,” he said. “There’s no firm wall between prose and songs, but songs tend to come so fast that there’s not much chance for other things to weasel their way in. I do some drawing, too, but very crude. I am a word guy at the end of the day. People ask if I’ll bring a guitar and play some songs at readings, but that would be weird. I don’t just play a song, I burn a building down. Present a gale force to effect change. Stepping in and out of that would be hard.”

‘Everything’s a study’

Given the volume of work Darnielle is always generating across multiple fronts, prose-writing is something he has to work in whenever and wherever he can find the time.

“John is always writing something off in a corner,” said Jon Wurster, his Mountain Goats bandmate since 2007. “Most of it we never hear about.”

Darnielle’s first book of his own was 2008’s “Master of Reality,” a short first-person novella written from the viewpoint of a teenager in a psychiatric hospital whose only comfort was the 1971 Black Sabbath album. The full-length “Wolf” followed in a similar vein, about a disfigured young man who runs a mail-order role-playing game. It’s masterfully written, with multiple levels of details gradually revealing themselves leading up to a stunning conclusion.

“Universal Harvester” is also wrenching, but in a quieter way. Set in Iowa around the end of the 20th century, it has a cast of people dealing with their separate traumas as best they can. The protagonist is Jeremy, who works in a video-rental store where disturbing scenes suddenly start turning up in videocassettes of different movies.

How to reconcile the loss of a mother is a major theme. If more of the new book’s details are open-ended than they were in “Wolf in White Van,” with more questions than answers at the end, that was partly by design.

“There are some big unknowns,” Darnielle said. “Who are the people on the tapes? How did that shake out? What was the process and what became of them? And sure, I have answers to those questions. Because it’s fiction, none of them are true and all of them are true. It’s the opposite of ‘Wolf’ in a lot of ways. Often you’ll read a book and at the end know the ‘what’ but not ‘why.’ ‘Wolf’ was like that. Here we know the ‘why,’ while the ‘what’ is murkier. But we do know what was driving people. That was the pleasure of it for me, not knowing what would happen.”

As for what’s next, something is in progress. But Darnielle won’t say what.

“I’m always into stuff, but I never talk about it ahead of time,” he said. “If I said something like, ‘I’m going to do a high fantasy about a family of unicorns living secretly in the hills of Pennsylvania,’ people would get ideas about what to expect. I prefer there to be as few preconceived ideas as possible. The work in progress is amorphous, I’m always researching and writing little things that may or may not get used. I like the whole process and I’m always just doing drafts. Studies like painters do. But everything’s a study until you actually do the oil painting.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


John Darnielle “Universal Harvester” book readings:

▪ 7 p.m. Monday at Motorco Music Hall, Durham (motorcomusic.com). Admission is $10, applied to purchase price of the book.

▪ 7 p.m. Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh (quailridgebooks.com). Admission is free.