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A Rhinestone Button

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Gail Anderson-Dargatz writes lovely novels about unlovely people: unlovely people who grow beautiful under her compassionate, masterful, sly authorial gaze. After two books with unforgettable heroines, Beth Weeks of The Cure for Death by Lightning and Augusta Olsen of A Recipe for Bees, Anderson-Dargatz shifts gender focus in this novel and gives us Job Sunstrum, a painfully shy Alberta farmer who hears in bright colours and thinks he is getting messages from God.

Job desperately needs saving, from his own virginity and lack of confidence, from his overbearing father and sanctimonious brother, and from the narrow expectations of his German Baptist community of Godsfinger, where the mayor fines villagers who don’t keep their grass cut short enough for her liking. Confirming his outsider status, Job bakes the best almond squares in the county and has an angelic face surrounded by lustrous curls. “Men were not pretty in Godsfinger, Alberta,” notes Anderson-Dargatz.

Urban readers may be shouting at Job before 20 pages have elapsed, urging him to pack up and flee such a constricting existence. But it’s Anderson-Dargatz’s particular genius to understand that most rural people don’t travel far from home, and that their communities can provide health and salvation as well as angst and isolation. It’s all a question of who you hang out with and how you look at things. Job’s journey from loneliness and the weirdness of synesthesia to love and self-acceptance only takes him a couple of kilometres from the family farm, but it’s as expansive and adventure-laden as Homer’s Odyssey.

The crisis of Job’s young life begins when his older brother Jacob, an evangelical preacher who left the farm years earlier, turns up unemployed with his wife Lilith and son Ben in tow. They had to leave their last situation somewhere in Ontario because Lilith, a schoolteacher, had gone berserk and attacked a student with a roll of duct-tape. Son Ben is a firebug. This nuclear family from hell moves back into the ancestral homestead, displacing Job to the hired man’s cabin.

The grimness of evangelism now takes centre stage, as Jacob tries to force his brother’s submission to the will of God. Job already believes – at least in the God he senses in the gorgeous swirls of colour he sees when the church choir sings – but he resists to the core the self-abasement and speaking in tongues that Jacob’s more radical ministry preaches. When he witnesses Jacob beating his son for the umpteenth time, Job sees through the religious rhetoric to the deadly power struggle underneath: “He was trying to break Ben’s will, to master him … but not before God as he claimed. Jacob was trying to bring Ben to submission before himself. And it was working.”

The dangers of farm life are here in abundance as well. Job’s mother is killed when a tractor chain snaps and hits her in the head. His father is crushed under a sliding mountain of silage. A farmer loses his arm in the baler and drives to hospital with the severed limb sitting on ice in his beer cooler. In fact, disasters seem to be the backbone of social intercourse in places like Godsfinger. On Job’s first date with Liv Liebich, “they ate and talked of who was ill, who had cancer. Who’d been bankrupted and lost their farm. Who’d just died, or was about to. Who’d hung themselves from their barn rafters that month because they were about to lose the farm. The usual talk.”

But alongside the male- and nature-dominated cruelties of life in Godsfinger, there’s a whole slew of enticing, comforting, subversive, and wayward women (plus a couple of sympathetic gay men) who show Job glimpses of the life he could be living if he would tune out the voices of unworthiness chanting monotonously inside his head. In one revealing flashback, Job recalls how his sweet but brow-beaten mother gradually convinced him that he preferred dark to white meat whenever she served chicken, so that father Abe and brother Jacob could wolf down a breast each without a family quarrel. Learning to rediscover his taste for white meat and, more importantly, his right to demand it as much as anybody else at the table, is one of the vivid metaphors for Job’s quest.

As in her other novels, the eccentricities of Canadian rural life are incorporated seamlessly and hilariously into Anderson-Dargatz’s narrative: a duck in diapers waddling around a farm kitchen; a woman who puts a cat in the dishwasher as punishment for pooping in her yellow Sunday pumps; another woman who patrols the streets of Godsfinger with a loaded water pistol and exhorts Job every time she sees him with the imprecation “You’ve got to get out more!” before she shoots him in the back of the head.

Job recovers from these attacks, and learns, and so do we. Probably all of us need to get out more, into the human interactions and adventures that Anderson-Dargatz knows make life bearable, funny, and worth sticking around for.