Book Review: Horse-Drawn Yogurt by Peter Gould
Stories from Total Loss Farm
By Peter Gould
(Brattleboro: Green Writers Press, 2017 pp. 217, paper $19.95)
I had no idea what to expect when I
began reading Horse-Drawn Yogurt. My
expectation of libertine tales of life on a hippie commune in Vermont in the Sixties
and Seventies soon gave way to the realization that I was in the hands of a
master storyteller – one who knows the point of story is not always the story
itself but the deeper truths that narrative conveys about who we are and why we
persist amidst life’s chaos and confusion… how we hopefully migrate from naïve
and youthful immortals through the realities life imposes to the hard-won wisdom
and humility of age.
Gould’s tales, while visceral and
entertaining, are never content to be just stories. Sometimes they express a
personal epiphany, ask the unanswerable question, or portray a time in which
the post-war, middle-American dream began to unravel, as young people began
asking their parents and teachers questions they could neither answer nor
understand. The prospect of consumer comforts, golf club membership, a new car
every other year, and a lifelong job is losing its appeal to this generation,
as they’re being drafted into a war that lacks any moral purpose. They see the
assassinations of civil rights leaders of all colors on snowy black and white
TV sets, as well as other young people sharing their doubts about the country’s
direction being fired on by National Guardsmen. Gould captures this fraught time
in America with the clarity of a starlit summer night in Packer Corners.
Woven through the tales is Vermont’s
live-and-let-live reception of new arrivals of all sorts, the bemused welcome
Vermonters generally exhibit towards the counter-culture communards buying up
lost hill farms that dotted the rural landscape. Gould weaves indigenous Vermonters
into his tales with respect and gratitude for their oversight, help during
natural catastrophes, and their willingness to offer advice, share a warm fire
or a place at the table.
The quotidian chores of splitting
and stacking wood, weeding a garden, tapping maple trees and boiling sap,
pressing cider, gathering eggs, baking pies with fruit raised on the commune,
all become metaphors for larger truths that gyre over the narrative like
red-tailed hawks. Gould suspends us between the seasonal chores of communal
life, the complexities of living together in anarchic penury, rampant hormones,
and the larger truths to be distilled from that experience.
He largely meets the challenge of
chaptering his short stories of a different time into a virtual novella, both
capturing the details of communal life and work with an impressionist’s eye and
an ear for the timbre of life in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Vermont.
Yogurt is a vital and personal telling of a period in Vermont and the
country at large that rises to the literary level of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion or Richard
Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America.
Few descriptions of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s transcend the monochrome lenses of
political, sociological, or ecological narrative and capture the Cineramic
zeitgeist of this time in America.
Writing of the Chilean singer,
poet, activist, and martyr, Victor Jara, Gould (himself a stutterer) asks:
“As a stutterer, to be impelled to speak perfectly by the terrible
fluency of truth: the truth of why you were born joined to the truth of what
you know, what you have to tell? When you see that or hear that in people, you
recognize it and it nearly stops your heart; you wonder: will that ever happen
to you? How would it feel?” (p.153)
Gould answers his own question in Horse-Drawn Yogurt.
Schubart is an author of seven works of fiction and currently chairs the
Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives, works and write in Hinesburg, VT.