Review by Ben Arzate
[Disclaimer: Golden Rod was published by Cabal Books, which is also publishing a novel by me]
Jack, a dishwasher obsessed with tea, has contracted a strange disease which turns his penis a deep yellow. After a stint in the hospital due to an attack by dogs, he decides to burn his truck and go to live in a cave in the woods with his dog.
While there, a number of other strange characters join him including a socialist revolutionary, a hippie girl, an Ethiopian who never speaks, some wood fairies, a pair of twins with breathing problems, an alcoholic dental hygienist, and a baby who seems to have appeared out of nowhere.
Before he met Jack, revolutionary ideas had flowed through the Revolutionary’s brain like tea from a samovar. But now, boots in the sand, things had proven to be more difficult. Food was hard to find. Love was not always free. No one in the cave really knew what to do. The lessons of history were before them.
Golden Rod is a mostly straightforward story with several quirks. In the beginning, we’re told that Merle Haggard is the soundtrack to the book, however, Merle himself also occasionally interjects in the action, especially when his songs are interrupted by other ones. Deer and guns talk, a monster stalk the woods, and ghosts occasionally show up.
The best way to describe the book is that it’s like it was written by a very disillusioned Richard Brautigan. Jack and his comrades want nothing more than to live a simple life in the woods, dubbing themselves “the Locavores” for living off the local land and after the monster that lives in the woods. However, they have no idea how to actually live off the land and are constantly starving and bumbling around for nourishment.
Their attempts to spread their ideals do nothing but annoy the people around them. At one point, they occupy a local supermarket to protest modern food production. The shoppers either ignore them or regard them with bemusement. All of this played for comedy, this is a very funny book, but there’s still a sense of futility. The modern world is an unstoppable beast.
This is especially true with the character the Revolutionary. He views living in the cave away from contemporary life through an idealistic lens. He even comes up with the ways to spread the message of simple living.
Eventually, his idea to shoot cars (most of which are already broken down) gets the law on the group. Despite that, the group splits up of its own accord. The Revolutionary decides to shave and go back to teaching. The forest rangers are far more interested in playing Risk than looking for the group anyway.
Jack himself is no idealist, though he’s willing to go along with the Revolutionary’s ideas. He’s simply sick and tired of his daily life and the disease that turned his penis yellow. He’s the only one who chooses to remain after all of his comrades get tired of living in the cave. Mostly because he has nothing to go back to. His few possessions are gone, he has no other friends or relatives, and he wants for nothing besides a simple life. He has no reason to do anything but stay in the cave until the bitter end.
Golden Rod is a funny, unique, and insightful read. Riddlebarger’s prose is simple but poetic. He paints vivid and surreal pictures of the woods and the strange cast of characters reside in it. He shows both the appeal and the downsides of returning to a simpler life and how the modern world simply won’t allow it either way anymore. I highly recommend this novel.