I once heard the critic Roger Ebert deconstruct the Coen brothers film Fargo. In the middle of that movie, there is a scene in which the very pregnant Marge (the police chief, played by Frances McDormand) meets an old high school acquaintance for a drink at her hotel in Minneapolis. The acquaintance tells her that his wife died from a lingering illness, breaks down in tears, then tries to switch sides of the booth to sit next to Marge, apparently to put his arm around her. After a few strained minutes of conversation, she bids him good night and leaves. As they played it, the scene is immensely comic and weird, and becomes one of the most memorable moments in a film overflowing with memorable moments. But as far as anyone can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It appears to be a set piece plunked down in the midst of the larger story, and by almost any standard, it is a distraction from the kidnapping, murder and betrayal propelling the story. Ebert, responding to the idea that it was extraneous and should have been left out, waxed poetic, saying that without that scene, the whole film would lose some vital bit of strangeness that raises everything to a higher level. His argument was fun, passionate and absolutely convincing.
I feel the same way about that ghostly farmer in Henry’s shed. He has very little plot function—he could almost be snipped right out of this book—yet without him, I’m sure the story would be incomplete. For one thing, that old farmer reminds Edgar that he has been touched by strangeness, and that no matter where Edgar goes, he will always be caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead. That boundary has fallen for Edgar as it did for Hamlet, and it can never be put into place again. That old farmer is a critical, inevitable eruption of the strange in the oasis of ordinariness that is Henry Lamb’s world.
For another thing, the old farmer is a ghost of place. After decades of throwing bits and pieces of his life into the shed—ostensibly at his wife’s request, though I suspect he might be exaggerating about that—he’s ultimately thrown some part of himself in there too. In answer to an earlier question, I remarked on how long-form fiction is held together by a braid of thematic and imagistic threads, some visible, others invisible. This is another example of that principle. There are many ghosts in this book, and all of them are ghosts of place. Schultz is an obvious example, given that Edgar lives in a house with his writing on the walls and can practically see him walking out of the woods, but it is also true that Edgar’s father is portrayed early on standing in the doorway of the barn, occupying the same spot during a thunderstorm where he will eventually appear to Edgar in the rain. The story of Hachiko is also the story of a dog that returns to the same spot every day to escort the ghostly presence of Ueno home. Some purely aesthetic part of my imagination wants to argue: How could that old farmer not be in the shed?
Too, the old farmer helps clarify the stakes for Edgar, so he’s not an entirely whimsical figure. In talking about his own moment of revelation (realizing he is cursed to be good at something he doesn’t enjoy doing, while the train engineer loves what he is good at—a quality the old farmer calls “that rare thing”) something almost falls into place for Edgar. It takes a couple of days, but I believe Edgar’s decision to turn back after the climactic events on the shore of Lake Superior can be traced back to that ghost’s story. That’s why Edgar makes a point of going out to the shed on his last night in Henry’s house: to ask in the darkness whether that rare thing is in him. And really, how will he know unless he turns back?
Last of all, and most arbitrarily, I just plain like that old farmer. He’s a character right out of my childhood, one of the slightly scary, grizzled old men who hung around the feed mill arguing and telling jokes all day long. He’s not unique in that regard. There are plenty of references in this novel to people, dogs and events that no one besides my closest family would recognize. And some are entirely personal—a postcard from myself to myself, a final home on the page for some memory I’ve pointlessly carried along with me for years. That’s one of the secret satisfactions of writing fiction.