Jamie Kornegay Soil: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781476750873

Soil: A Novel

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9781476750873: Soil: A Novel
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In this darkly comic, “promising debut from an assured new voice in Southern fiction” (Library Journal), an idealistic young farmer moves his family to a Mississippi flood basin, suffers financial ruin—and becomes increasingly paranoid he’s being framed for murder.

It all begins with a simple dream. An ambitious young environmental scientist hopes to establish a sustainable farm on a small patch of land nestled among the Mississippi hills. Jay Mize convinces his wife Sandy to move their six-year-old son away from town and to a rich and lush parcel where Jacob could run free and Jay could pursue the dream of a new and progressive agriculture for the twenty-first century. Within a year he’d be ruined.

When the corpse appears on his family’s property, Jay is convinced he’s being set up. And so beings a journey into a maze of misperceptions and personal obsessions, as the farmer, his now-estranged wife, a predatory deputy, and a backwoods wanderer, all try to uphold a personal sense of honor. By turns hilarious and darkly disturbing, Soil traces one man’s apocalypse to its epic showdown in the Mississippi mudflats. “The Coen brothers meets Flannery O’Connor. It’s definitely Gothic, it’s definitely dark, but at the same time, it is hilarious and heartbreaking” (Kyle Jones, NPR).

Drawing on elements of classic Southern noir, dark comedy, and modern dysfunction, Jamie Kornegay’s novel is about the gravitational pull of one man’s apocalypse and the hope that maybe, just maybe, he can be reeled in from the brink. “Dig your hands into this Soil to find gutty and peppery writing, an almost recklessly bold imagination, audacious empathy, and a story so twisty and volatile that nearly every turn feels electrifyingly unexpected” (Jonathan Miles, award-winning author of Want Not and Dear American Airlines).

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About the Author:

Jamie Kornegay lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he moved in 2006 to establish an independent bookstore, Turnrow Book Co. Before that he was a bookseller, events coordinator, and radio show producer at the famous Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi. Soil is his first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Soil

1

Before the flood, a stouthearted young couple was putting down roots in the nearby town of Madrid, where they’d settled after college—a man, his wife, and their young son. They painstakingly refurbished a house and planted an attractive garden in the back, where the father let the toddler dig and explore and pluck green tomatoes too soon from the vine. Smiles were never absent from their thankful faces, and if there were troubles then no one bothered to recall them. But a young man, especially one so clever, will grow restless and sometimes throw away everything when he turns elsewhere to affirm his life’s purpose.

The trouble started with compost. He first began making and experimenting with it for his job in soil management at the local Farm Service Agency. He started small, a few wooden bins in the backyard of the home on Nutt Street. He collected kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, raked leaves and grass clippings. He spread one ingredient over the next in lasagna layers, sprayed them down with the water hose, and turned the piles regularly with a garden fork. If properly maintained, the compost would actually become hot to the touch and would belch plumes of steam when stirred on cold mornings. He loved the earthy smell that rose from the mounds, the whiff of rot and fiber, the way the soil broke and fluffed a little more each day. Here was nature at work, made more efficient by man’s guiding hand.

He began to judge everything for its recyclability. All matter was either carbon or nitrogen. Soon he was collecting bags of lawn debris from neighborhood curbs and canvassing farms for straw bales and manure. He sorted leaves by species, made flowcharts of dung potency. Bins and mounds multiplied as he tinkered with ratios and tested fertility. He tilled up every square inch of backyard and planted vegetables and herbs, lined the front walk and driveway with big terra-cotta pots, each plot a test patch for some specially formulated recipe.

When he submitted a sample to a USDA-sanctioned exhibition, earning the highest marks in soil friability, nutrient retention, and water solubility, the local newspaper caught wind of it and dubbed him Compost Man. This gave his colleagues a good laugh. Even his wife joked to their friends about his growing “mudballs” out back and said she’d prefer him sneaking off with her lingerie catalogs than ogling the seed brochures the way he did.

One morning he walked out back to turn the piles and found that someone had laid a cruel turd atop one of his prize mounds. It was definitely human. The stench was complex and he found a fast-food napkin with brown streaks nearby. He couldn’t believe the audacity. They’d just hopped up on the bin, draped themselves over the corner, and let one rip.

He paced the back porch and spent hours at the window, profiling every neighbor who walked by with a pet. Every jogger, every biker, every long-haired mischievous teen. What was this compulsion to foul something so pure and constructive? Who was deranged enough to do such a thing? He walked out back with his hammer and studded the rims of each bin with nails. Next time someone came snooping pants-down in the dark, they’d pay with blood.

His colleagues thought it was a hilarious prank. Even his wife suggested gently that he was taking it too hard. “We eat out of that soil, for God’s sake!” he replied. “You want to end up in the hospital with a bacterial infection? Can you see our little son, dead from E. coli poisoning?”

She was skeptical of this, but he scoured the internet to prove the causes and insufficient cures of various bacteria and infections, moving on from there to viruses, superbugs, pandemics, extinction events. The deeper he dug, the more perils he uncovered.

Likewise the prank grew epic in his imagination. It was a pointed statement—“I shit on your life”—made by a lone creep and endorsed by a society that deemed him irrelevant. Somehow the smallest things can break a man, and the hairline fracture deep within the young scientist spread over the next several months. It did not depress him or slow his obsession but rather excited his research, leading to more compost mounds and more outlandish experiments. He upset the whole neighborhood when he planted a late-­season crop of corn right there in the front yard. His wife was horrified by bean and cucumber vines planted in the rain gutters, cascading down like gaudy Christmas decorations. “You’re turning our beautiful home into a feedlot,” she accused him.

He read incessantly and became an expert on diverse farming techniques from ancient to modern civilizations. His interpretation of historical patterns convinced him that poor soil management had led to the downfall of societies throughout time. He relayed all of these findings to his farmer clients and expounded on the hazards of modern farming. They were hidebound men who planted cotton, soybeans, and corn as their families had for generations, trying to eke out modest livings against increasingly volatile world markets. Times were tough enough. They had no use for antiquarian farming theories promoted by some arrogant, pencil-pushing upshot. Nor did they appreciate his accusations that they were squandering the soil by leaching it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, casting a blight upon the land and rivers and seas with their shortsighted and unsustainable methods, virtually ensuring that their grandchildren, along with everyone else’s, would wander the famished countryside like starving refugees in a desert of poisoned dust. All they wanted from him was help filling out subsidy applications and disaster relief forms.

The soil scientist grew bitter and withdrawn. He felt rather like a young suburban Moses, entrusted with critical information from on high that the general rabble was too distracted to glean. The agency confirmed this by requesting his resignation.

Their idyllic life threatened, his wife went back to school to get her teaching degree while he stayed home with the boy. But he did not mope and feel sorry for himself. Just before his forced retirement, the young farmer had attended a regional ag conference where he heard a lecture on advances in hydro- and aeroponic technology delivered by a famous environmental scientist who made the stunning admission “Plants don’t actually need soil to grow. Just a fissure for their roots to spread and soak up moisture and nourishment.”

It was an offhanded remark, on the way to a larger point, but to the soil scientist it felt like an atom bomb. The statement was so simple and staggering, so obvious. Soil-free farming. Why had he never seen it? Look at the bonsais and cacti in their rock gardens, the weeds growing up from cracks in the sidewalk.

His imagination vaulted years ahead to farms that operated indoors, fields stacked one atop the next in glass high-rises, each floor its own crop grown in recycled water and mineral baths. He saw farmers in white lab coats appraising the beautiful plants, no bugs or blemishes, no sweat or sunburn, not a speck of dirt in sight. The future will be spotless! Hoes and plows became droppers and beakers. Computers monitored optimal growing conditions. All of the equipment was powered by the sun and the wind, a perfect organic machine. The greatest pitfalls of agriculture—pestilence and disease, the unpredictability of weather, poisonous pollutants and industrial runoff—could be solved by making the whole process simpler, cleaner, and more efficient. He could build it and lead the innovation. He could make the world healthier and more peaceful. There was no time to waste. To proceed authentically, he would have to start from the ground up.

He searched for a piece of land, spent two months sorting through overpriced and unsuitable plots until he found a house with seventeen acres twenty miles south of town. It had been a rental property for years, but the owners had come on hard times and were looking to unload it quickly. The house was a charmless pile of bricks compared to their town cottage, and the backyard was full of castaway equipment and scrap. The fields were grown over, all scrub and marsh and raw potential. Beyond the house was pastureland and forest, even a river, the wild and portentous Tockawah River, which ran along the southwestern edge of the property and would serve as a constant source of irrigation. It was the perfect site for his experiment. All of it could be his for a song.

He composed his pitch and approached his wife. She listened to him describe the experiments and the laboratory and the farm tower he would erect, how he intended to produce enough fresh food to supply the local population—“Not a farm so much as a growing system, indifferent to the whims of markets and nature.” The way he described it and the completeness of his vision revealed a surprising logic born from his craze, and she became seduced a little.

She wondered about the home they’d made, the comforts they’d earned. Couldn’t they live in town and start a farming business on the side?

The start-up capital to make this dream a reality required both the proceeds from the Nutt Street house and the inheritance she’d recently received from her stepmother, an unexpected gift which might have been wisely spent paying off student loans or starting a college fund for the boy.

“What better way to prepare a boy than to raise him in the country?” he asked. Teach a boy to hunt, fish, and farm, and you’ve paved the way for an honest, salt-of-the-earth man to live free come hell or high water.

She got a far-off look in her eye. Could she see it all before her, just as he had? Or was she scared to say no, knowing that if she kept her husband and his ambition shackled here she risked losing the very things she loved?

She had faith in him and his passion. He was asking her to double down on their young fortune. They took the leap together and spent some of the best days of their marriage in this shared endeavor.

A year later they were ruined.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9781476750811: Soil: A Novel

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ISBN 10:  1476750815 ISBN 13:  9781476750811
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2015
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9781444782950: Soil

Two Roads, 2015
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9781473607033: Soil

Two Roads
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9781444782936: Soil

Two Roads
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