Why you should be reading Cow Country

Published in 2014, Cow Country attracted almost no attention. Its “author,” Adrian Jones Pearson, is a pseudonym for a person who apparently has little use for American literary culture and its emphasis on authors’ biographies rather than the quality of their work. Its publisher, “Cow Eye Press,” is unknown and in fact is named for the fictional community college featured in the novel. There was a brief spasm of interest when someone called Art Winslow suggested (rather wildly) in the pages of Harper’s [https://harpers.org/blog/2015/09/the-fiction-atop-the-fiction/] that Adrian Jones Pearson might really be Thomas Pynchon. This was quickly rejected, along with the possibility that Art Winslow might be Thomas Pynchon, or Adrian Jones Pearson, or both.

Cow Country is set at a community college in the American southwest. That is one distinction from most books in this genre; academic novels are very rarely set on community college campuses. Moreover, the main character and first-person narrator is neither a professor nor a student. Instead Charlie is a Special Projects Coordinator, a mid-life quasi-failure with a master’s degree in Educational Administration. He is recruited to revise and resubmit the college’s failed reaccreditation self-study, to unite the factions in a grotesquely divided campus, and to reinstate the college Christmas party, cancelled the previous year because of these same divisions.

Unlike any other college novel I know, Cow Country treats the administration with no more derision than the faculty. Charlie is the kind of factotum whom professors love to dislike, but here he is represented as doing his best in a fairly honorable way. The college president, Dr. Felch, is old-fashioned but not stupid.

The novel is filled with amusing oddities. Part of Charlie’s interview required him to recite his educational philosophy in blank verse. The new-faculty orientation, in which he participates, involves castrating a calf. The most common way of expressing hostility to faculty members is to leave a bloated calf scrotum in their mailbox on a Friday afternoon.

The campus divisions are stark, mostly between old-timers and newcomers. The old-timers are committed to eating a lot of beef, pickup trucks, smoking. The newcomers like arugula and tantric yoga. The carnivores refuse to attend a party if any vegetables are to be served, the vegetarians if there will be any meat.

In this long novel there are many good scenes, including extended classroom observations, despite the difficulty many writers have in making teaching interesting in fiction. There is a creative writing workshop in which a student declares, “we should limit the spoken pronouncements of our characters to the guttural utterances and monosyllabic interjections of precocious third-graders.” Another student’s story includes the observation that “the sweat on Alison’s eye brow was dry and salty, like the tear of a very sad policeman.” To balance it there is a class in bovine reproduction.

Some of “Pearson’s” touches are casual oddities, like the fluctuation in the number of stars on the American flag, or Long River, the Native American professor of public speaking who never speaks, or the regular quotations from Anyman’s Guide to Love and the Community College, which declares that the opposite of love is efficiency.

If American authors may be divided between those who work by taking things out and those who put things in, “Pearson” is in the latter class. But what he puts in is so frequently acute, unexpected, and funny, that it is hard to object.

I would guess that, like other Cow Eye publications if any, Cow Country is unavailable at all major bookstores. But it is available on Amazon, and I recommend it to any devotees of campus fiction.

Reviewed by Professor Merritt Moseley

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