For the dysfunctional majority, Matthew F. Jones’ first novel, The Cooter Farm, comes at exactly the right time. During this, the season of post-holiday recrimination, many are tempted to imagine that their own families are uniquely mad. But take heart. Next to the Cooters, a hilariously and frighteningly deranged clan of upstate New York dairy farmers, even your oddest relative will seem as reasonable as Carl Sagan.
When it comes to peculiar uncles, young Ollie Cooter, the novel’s narrator, has a pair of beauties. First, there’s Hooter Cooter, farm boss and family bully, so called on account of his distinctive (and normally derisive) laugh. Uncle Looter, in turn, came by his nickname dishonestly — swiping almost anything he could lay his larcenous hands on. Injured in a tractor accident, Grandpa Cooter sits in the kitchen blowing spit bubbles and muttering propaganda slogans from World War I.
Ten-year-old Ollie’s father is no bargain either. Scooter Cooter used to be a local sprint champion before undertaking a career as an itinerant bull semen salesman and full-time hypochondriac. Healthy as a yearling calf, Scooter is given to lugubrious dinner table announcements of his impending death from testicular cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other imagined ailments. So while Hooter hoots, Ollie’s mother Nora Anne erects a plywood partition across the middle of the family trailer and warns his father, ”Don’t come scratching ‘round this door looking for handouts. I’m closing up the pantry.”
Not long afterwards Nora Anne begins to hold long private conferences with Mr. Groover, the school guidance counselor. One day, Ollie blunders in and finds Groover burrowing under his mother’s skirt — supposedly searching for a lost earring. Nora Anne demands that Ollie apologize for failing to knock.
But for all its elements of farce, Jones’ story of how ”life, after sniffing around a bit, lifted its leg on the Cooter farm,” has darker undertones as well. Feeling more or less orphaned by his parents’ antics, Ollie soon learns that there are nocturnal tiptoeings and shameful secrets up at the main house, too. Stumbling through a dark hallway late one night, he meets the brutal Hooter in his nightshirt emerging from the bedroom of his beloved 13-year-old aunt (and Hooter’s sister), Mary Jane. ”I told Ma,” the weeping girl says. ”Even showed her the blood on my sheets. She called me a liar and said that I was an evil child, that I was tryin’ to tear the family apart.”
Fearing the loss of the family farm, the old woman will hear nothing against Hooter no matter what. ”When one repeats something enough times,” Ollie comes to understand, ”the truth is no longer relevant. What is relevant is what is said and what is said becomes the truth.” But Hooter, the children learn after shadowing him to town one Friday night, has an even worse secret to hide — one so terrifying that they have no real choice but to half-conspire — with him to conceal it. After all, the worldly Mary Jane warns Ollie, they could be considered accessories themselves in the eyes of the law.
Part slapstick, part Adirondack gothic, The Cooter Farm will remind readers of John Irving one minute, Joyce Carol Oates the next. An altogether remarkable debut. B+