by Arlo Crawford, 2014 Henry Holt and Company, 258 pages, 25.00
By his own admission, Arlo Crawford was someone who might have grown up on a farm, but seemed to have little connection to the act of farming beyond the recognition of what it meant to his parents. His decision to spend a summer at New Morning Farm could be interpreted as a chance to reconnect with his folks and refocus and recalibrate himself.
"A Farm Dies Once A Year" shows Crawford has talent. There's a story contained in this book that he seems to be dying to tell. Unfortunately, he derails himself by trying to do too much with the rather thin material he devotes so much time to writing about, leaving the much richer story of his parents' journey from hippies to farmers and the murder of a family friend as tangental filler. The resulting memoir reads like a disjointed writer's sketchbook that should have actually been the start of two completely different books. Given his demonstrated ability as a fabulist, both of those works should have been novels.
There are passages throughout "A Farm Dies Once A Year" that are compelling reading, but take away from the book as a record of what happened by Crawford's tendency to fill in the blanks. He attributes thoughts, motivations, and emotions he could not possibly have known to people be doesn't say he ever interviewed. Conversations he was not present to hear are presented as documented fact. As someone who has worked on oral histories and researched events as recorded by primary sources I can say with certainty that this is a sin in any number of disciplines where one is supposed to be recording the truth.
There's a big however here. My gut feeling from reading this is Crawford should have taken more time and written a novel based on the murder case and possibly another novel about his parents. He has the chops. What is even more frustrating is I could do some of my own filling-in-the-blanks and see in the book where the author took a writerly wrong turn.
There is a passage where Crawford sees a picture of his father's murdered friend and a very emotional conversation ensues. This is the start of Crawford's obsessive sleuthing and should have been the point where he began to write his novel. Instead, we are treated to chapters of navel gazing, a pedestrian love story, and cringeworthy anecdotes where Crawford tips his hand in ways that reveal he and his family have nasty elitist streaks.
This is almost mitigated by the times he stops trying to be sage and just tells a story. He has a way of creating narratives that build worlds you can almost see and touch and populates them with characters you feel like you will get to know, given the chance. I finished this book frustrated that I didn't get to read the novel Arlo Crawford should have written.