Adrian Jones Pearson: Cow Country
I read this book for the very simple reason that there was a suggestion that the author was Thomas Pynchon. Having read the book and seen other evidence, I do not think it is Pynchon but there are enough Pynchonesque features in the book that I would not be entirely surprised to be proved wrong. This review will focus on the book, regardless of who the author is, but I will mention a bit more about the tittle-tattle in my blog post.
As well as the book, the author/publisher has set up a variety of associated websites. There are a Facebook page, a Twitter page and a website. There is even an associated magazine. These all share the same tongue in cheek humour.
The book is set entirely at Cow Eye Community College, an obviously entirely fictitious community college, in a remote part of the United States. The area is suffering major drought and the community college is suffering major problems. The book is seen through the eyes of Charlie, the Special Projects Coordinator. Unlike virtually every other major character, Charlie does not appear to have a surname. Even when it is necessary to have one, e.g. in introductions, he is referred to simply as Mr. Charlie. Charlie has not had a successful life. He is twice divorced, though still relatively young. He has decided to become an educational administrator in which he now has a Master’s. He applies for the job at Cow Eye and has a phone interview. It seems to him and to us, one of the most tortuous interviews devised and he thinks he has failed. It is witty, perplexing and has elements of what we used to call third form humour and in the US is called sophomoric humour. For example, he is asked if he has provided a urine sample. He admit that he has not and goes and gets one, bringing back the container of steaming urine – to the phone interview. The container of urine will become one of the many, many running jokes (à la Pynchon) that occur throughout his book. We learn that one of the problems of the college is that there is a big cultural divide and one of Charlie’s roles will be helping to deal with this. One example (more third form humour) is that it is customary to leave a bloated calf’s scrotum in the mailbox of one of the staff on a Friday night so that, by Monday, it is covered in flies and smelling. This is the second running joke, as bloated calf’s scrota in mailboxes will make a regular appearance. Charlie is asked how he would deal with this problem and while he apparently gives a brilliant response, we never know what his response was. This technique is used more than once in the book.
Charlie gets the job and faces a huge amount of problems, all of which are wittily described. The president is called Felch (no, I didn’t know that is what it meant, either). The cultural divide, the Christmas Party and the almost failed accreditation from last year are his three main issues. Jones Pearson makes much of the dichotomy and conflict, both in the college generally and in Charlie’s life. He is a conflict-avoider, preferring compromise. However, most people are on one side of the line or the other. These lines include (but are certainly not limited to) meat-eaters (Cow Eye made its money from the Cow Eye ranch which provided much of the meat eaten in the US) vs non-meat eaters or, to put it another way, New Agers vs old-fashioned frontier people; natives vs incomers (one of the running jokes is about California and Californians); smokers vs non-smokers; those who favour electric typewriters and those who do not and many more. Two opposites that barely appear, however, are religion and party politics. There are variations on this: And when I looked even more closely I saw that among the broad divisions there were subdivisions and within these subdivisions there were subdivisions of the subdivisions. For even at the individual tables there were noticeable separations and stratifications and limitless groupings and affiliations, says Charlie. In most cases the two camps are diametrically opposed and see no room for compromise whatsoever. For example, Rusty Stokes, a local who teaches animal husbandry cannot imagine why anyone would want anything but meat and meat products at a Christmas party. His nemesis, Gwen Dubois, wants arugula (we tend to call it rocket in the UK). Charlie’s problem is that he cannot (and, of course, should not) take sides but this is seen as a failing, not least by himself. He has never, he admits to himself, been anything entirely and would like to be.
Before going further, I would like to set the date of this novel. This is tricky. One of the running jokes (yes, there are lots and lots of them, some quite amusing) is the US flag. It appears throughout the book, each time with a different number of stars. The earliest appears to be one with twenty-three stars, which was last used (officially) in 1822! Just before the end, the flag has forty-eight stars (Arizona, 1912) and almost on the last page it has forty-nine stars (Alaska, January 1959). Given that Hawaii was admitted in August 1959, perhaps we can take the year to be 1959. One person says that there are forty states, which would date it to 1889, when the two Dakotas were admitted (the Dakotas also become something of a running joke). When other countries are mentioned we get quite a mix: Tanganyika and Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union and Kyrgyzstan, Yugoslavia and Serbia and Croatia, Zaire and Eritrea. In short, these are countries that did not exist at the same time and are clearly (wait for it) a running joke, like the flag. The various pictures on the websites are not helpful. The pictures on the author’s website look old but have not been taken from elsewhere on the web. The picture of the African-American Studies class, which amusingly has no African-Americans in it, was taken from the National Archives and is dated 1933. This is probably quite irrelevant. Technology is often a clue and we have motor vehicles as standard, colour televisions exist but are not yet common (at least not in Cow Eye) and, as mentioned, electric typewriters are making an appearance. On the social side, there is an African-American Studies course though only one negroid (sic) teacher, who finds negroid offensive, so is persuaded to accept coloured. (This will also be a running joke and the designation will change several times during the book.) Those of Asian origin are referred to as mongoloids. Despite clues to the contrary, I am guessing the novel is set in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Besides his job problems, Charlie faces other issues. His neighbours are the maths faculty and they believe in loud – very loud – parties lasting all night so Charlie rarely gets any sleep. (The joke is that the maths faculty whom we might except to be staid and quiet are, in fact, raucous and noisy.) As part of his inability to be anything entirely (do I need to say that this is another running joke?) he takes two pills, each given by a different person. One is a sleeping pill and one some sort of stimulant or upper. He has an affair with a woman who has been married three times and had affairs with various members of the staff and town and who is very handy with a knife and very demanding. His massively overqualified predecessor is part of the dichotomy spectrum. Some loved her, some hated her. Some blamed her for the problems, while others said she was the innocent victim. Whatever the case, she left Charlie a slew of problems.
The college’s relations with the wider community of Cow Eye are not much emphasised. We know the ranch is no longer providing meat for the country. We know that there is a huge drought but that the college has a large swimming pool, fountains and pelicans, all provided for thanks to a generous endowment from the Dimwiddle family, who are (or, at least, were) responsible for one in every seven bullets sold in the world. We know that a Native American village nearby was flooded when a dam was built and that the village was destroyed and the inhabitants relocated. One survivor, Alan Long River, is on the faculty but has not spoken for twelve years because his detailed proposal for teaching the language of his people was rejected in favour of Esperanto. Despite the dam, the river has now dried up, probably because of a curse by Alan’s people.
Charlie’s aim is to get the accreditation, to get the Christmas party and bring together the various factions. Inevitably, this is a seemingly insurmountable task and his success might be said to be mixed, though not quite what we expected. We can, if we wish, take Cow Eye College to be representative of community colleges throughout the Untied States and the book a well-meaning) satire on them. Clearly, we can also take it to be a satire on the United States and its many contradictions and problems. Does it work? I thought it very amusing and well-written and a book that should be able to stand on its own and not rely on the (probably erroneous) Pynchon association to succeed. Jones Pearson (whoever he may be) writes well and makes a lot of interesting points about college administration (and, by extension, administration of any large body, be it educational or an entire country). Above all, though, if it is read and remembered, it will be for its humour and there is nothing wrong with that
First published in 2015 by Cow Eye Press