"If you're from a small town," Chris Fink says, "one of the things that's required of you is that you have an opinion about that town."
Fink's debut novel, Farmer's Almanac, is full of characters who criticize or defend the Wisconsin villages of Bergamot Pond and Shady Valley -- fictional communities that struggle with the very real challenge of low milk prices.
The strongest, most pervasive opinions in the novel come from lifelong resident Frank Fetters, editor of The Bergamot Weekly Almanac. Fetters reported for years on residents' opposition to community improvements. In the opening chapter, he takes a parting shot at readers in his final Op/Ed before retiring:
Nothing remarkable has ever happened here; you people saw to that. As you know I have spent my time writing about your news: your sidewalk and roadwork vetoes, your ongoing battle against municipal sewer, a water tower. Your curfews, boating regulations, fish (ha) limits.
On the eve of the town's sesquicentennial, Fetters blasts his neighbors for turning a pig farm lagoon into a clear lake by poisoning all the carp:
But I scarcely need to remind you newer residents, with your improved houses and manicured lakefronts, of Bergamot Pond's new concern: our seaweed epidemic. Now the water is indeed crystalline, yet we can't see it under the dense matting of weeds. The carp are gone and the sun shines brightly through the gin-clear water to spawn the weeds. Now no finned hogs are here to uproot them.
"Fetters has been ignored," Fink says, "as journalists sometimes feel they are by the town they live in."
Fink was a reporter for the Monroe Times. He also worked on farms in Wisconsin and Illinois. This combined experience informs the chapter "Farmer and Farmer's Radio," in which a dairy farm owner named Farmer goes insane from the routine of milking cows and shoveling manure. Farmer also faces pressure from laws that, according to the author, keep milk prices artificially low.
Fink remembers seeing lots of auction signs during the mid 1990s. "California had eclipsed Wisconsin as the number one dairy producer," Fink says. "The farmers that managed to keep their land were barely scraping by," he says, "and a lot of them were losing it, as happens here with Farmer."
In one scene, Farmer is worried about one of his cows, Pretty Holly, who's lying on the floor of the barn. If she's sick, he'll have to pay the veterinarian. If she's dying, he'll have to hire a truck to haul her away. He tells his banker not to worry; he thinks he can get $600 for her. Then another cow whips her urine-soaked tail against Farmer's face and he flips out:
He grunts, flings the milk machine across the aisle, lands a boot on her hock, sinks a fist in her thigh. Gets this wild idea. Reaches to the pipeline, snatches his cow cane and brings it down on her spine. Wham. Again and again, even as she pulls against her collar till her eyes bulge out, he swings. Wham.
Fink doesn't excuse this behavior, but he understands. "The loneliness," he says, "coupled with economic hardship, and drinking in this case, is a bad recipe."
In one of the book's most vivid scenes, Farmer dreams of cutting his fingertips and milking himself:
He inserts each dripping finger into a socket of the milk machine. It takes two machines for his eight fingers. A milk machine dangles from each hand as he stands in the barn, rocking to the metronome. He can see the blood surging through the clear lines of the milk machine and he imagines it is just now hitting the bulk tank, where it mixes with those gallons and gallons of white, where his blood mixes with the milk of the world.
When Farmer returns to reality, Pretty Holly is dead. Farmer hooks the milk plugs to her lifeless udder and drains whatever he can from her.
Fink is a professor of English at Beloit College. His novel is published by Emergency Press.
Chris Fink will join two other Summer Book Series authors -- John Bradley and Joe Bonomo -- for a reading and panel discussion at Books on First in Dixon, June 29 from 3 to 5 p.m.
Next Wednesday, our Summer Book Series concludes with Joe Bonomo's essay collection, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began. Listen during Morning Edition after NPR news at 6:30 and 8:30. Then come back here for more information.