Book Review: Barn 8
Deb Olin Unferth reveals humor and humanity inside a hen heist
By Robert Faires,
5:25PM, Mon. Mar. 9, 2020
Imagine Moby Dick as a chicken.
Well, that's not quite right. Imagine, rather, Moby-Dick – the book – as a story about the industry that exploits chickens for their eggs. And imagine a quartet of Ahabs – though more disaffected than monomaniacal – on a crusade to crack that Great White Egg.
Now, season it liberally with absurdity and a generous sympathy for every one of its many wayward characters, and you have something of the flavor of Barn 8, the novel by Austin author Deb Olin Unferth.
If you have no familiarity with the egg industry, Unferth does you the favor of, well, laying out how it operates, and the numbers alone are jaw-dropping: eggs being produced at a Carl Sagan Cosmos rate – i.e., "billions and billions" – with hens by the millions on just one farm and hundreds of thousands of birds housed – which is to say caged – in a single barn. And the conditions in those cages are none too generous: multiple birds crowded in each, with just enough space in the wire mesh for the birds to stick their heads out and peck at the feed trough outside it and for the eggs to drop out, but also the shit. (And yes, Unferth is as quick to share data on the amount of shit produced as she is the number of eggs.)
Barn 8's two leading characters, however, know all about this. Indeed, they're on intimate terms with it: Cleveland and Janey are both auditors in the industry; it's their job to visit egg farms and monitor their compliance with industry standards. But Cleveland, though a veteran auditor with an almost military reverence for rules and regs, has lately made her own break from them, surreptitiously stealing hens off farms to get them free of the industry, and Janey, a teen at loose ends who only took the auditor job because her recently deceased mom used to babysit Cleveland (a connection with deep meaning for Cleveland) and hates being an auditor. So when Janey conceives of an audacious plan for egg layer liberation, Cleveland is in – even though the plan is almost as stupefying as the stats on egg production: Steal a million chickens from one farm in a single night.
The very idea of a hen heist on that scale is in itself laughable, not to mention implausible, and Unferth does nothing to put lipstick on that fowl. What she does do – and in a way that is unexpectedly endearing – is show us how this band of ragtag malcontents commit to it and almost pull off the damn thing. Janey and Cleveland's confederates Annabelle and Dill – who have a history of radical activism investigating egg farms – put out a call to old activist colleagues they deem trustworthy – maybe burnouts and hard cases but with enough of that torch for the cause still lit inside to want to stick it to the industry one more time and free some birds from its greedy clutches. There's a hundred, but Unferth gives us almost two-thirds of their names – wonderfully expressive names that tell us as much as Cleveland's name does: Cricket, Smoke, Sahara, Rocket, Pal, Byrd, Ham, Cat, Frond – and for two dozen of them, she provides a snippet of background – two sentences, one, maybe just a few words – that sketch out a full life. We know who each of them is, enough to feel for them. So even as Unferth gets us laughing, she gets us to care.
That's part of a larger strategy that Unferth employs with regard to Barn 8, a plan for us to see through its improbable poultry heist a full world. Unferth not only gives us details about the supporting characters in this tale, she frequently lets us see how it's playing out through their eyes. The narrative will shift to another perspective, say, Janey's father, who set up her job with Cleveland, or Farmer Green, who owned the farm from which the hens were stolen, or Alejandro, the temp security guard who was on watch the night of the heist or a cop who helped stopped the heist or Bonnie K, a park ranger. She even takes us inside the mind of Bwwaauk, the first hen stolen by Cleveland. She also periodically jumps forward in time, showing us how events will play out in the future – even the far future, when humans are extinct but guess what continues to roam the earth, scratching for food and pecking at bugs. Unferth's inventive, engaging approach is like the eyes of a chicken as she describes them: "They work separately, have multiple objects of focus. When they cock their heads, they're getting a series of snapshots from different perspectives."
Barn 8 is Unferth's series of snapshots printed like fine-art photographs and exhibited in a gallery where they tell a story at once intimate and epic, preposterous and honest, disparaging and vulnerable. It's a story more expansive than its plot would suggest, embracing a diversity of lives – even some in alternate universes – and spanning prehistoric eras to a time beyond our imagining. But even though it instructs us that the chickens were here long before we were and will have the last word (or should that be cluck?) long after we're gone, this tale of chickens is always completely, compassionately human.
Deb Olin Unferth will speak about and sign copies of Barn 8 on Mon., March 9, 7pm, at BookPeople, 503 N. Lamar. For more information, visit the BookPeople website.
Barn 8by Deb Olin Unferth
Greywolf Press, 296 pp., $16