On The Bucolic Plague: From Drag Queen to Goat Farmer (Harper Collins 2010). Reviewed by Mike Bosia
Granted, I had mixed feelings from the moment Linda loaned me a preview copy of The Bucolic Plague: From Drag Queen to Goat Farmer, a new book by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. In addition to being the titular character, Josh was raised in rural
But as I began his memoir, I was struck by something uncanny, as if another couple was actually living my life, only more fabulously and gayer. The surface similarity was readily apparent. On the cover, Josh is lanky and tall, like Steven – my partner and Claire’s chef – and I can only describe Brent with a word Steven (unjustly) uses about me all the time: short. But where Steven is known for tie-died flair and a penchant for vibrant colors and patterns, and I still haven’t broken from the jeans and shirts professorial look, Josh and Brent are pictured on the book’s cover as an Edwardian fantasy from a Merchant Ivory production, like the class-crossing game warden in the filmed version of E.M. Forester’s Maurice. Their “farm” is an historic estate called the
With this in mind, it was the camp and the compost that quickly drew me in. In Hardwick terms, The Bucolic Plague starts somewhere between Judith Levine’s Not Buying It, her account of a year without shopping, Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved, and those famous cartoons by Eugene Fern, husband of our Claire’s namesake, published in the Gazette long ago. With a friendly mix of self-deprecation and self-indulgence, Josh (and Brent) try to find their better selves just off a country road paved by happenstance, genius, and bickering, facilitated by a coterie of magical if lightly sketched characters worthy of any Green Acres urban-meets-rural story of redemption. In the process, they bicker over raised beds (as Steven and I once did), laugh at fashion models frolicking in goat manure, Josh urinates in Martha Stewart’s garden, and they both enjoy Sharon Spring’s favorite holiday cocktail, called pink stuff.
Without a hint of Bill McKibben or Thoreau, Raj Patel or Polanyi, Josh begins his story about a disgruntled ad man firmly committed to the rediscovery of his better self in a community that values mutual support and reciprocity, teasing us along the way with that mystical relationship to the soil and the seasons that can bring you back from middle aged angst. But if the Bucolic Plague reads at times as a rejection of modern consumer culture, it also explores dreams of an internet business and reality TV show. Their story is familiarly American in its uncertainty, starkly “now,” timeworn, and ripe for the picking.
This is mostly because the other half of the title, after Bucolic, is Plague. Along with their fantasy, Josh lays bare the reality of their existence. The hard work (which he loves), the disjointedness of living two lives, and the implausible financial expectations of new farmers, things you rarely read about in the media’s recent obsession with everything “rural,” from rooftop urban farms in Brooklyn to foraging chefs. He mocks the dreamy urban perfectionism that can undermine the natural experience. The gossip, wrong turns, insecurities, life confusions, and even ill tempered boorishness get exposed. All this comes crashing down in a pile of mutual recriminations and bitterness along with the crash of 2008. Instead of a bucolic fantasy of rediscovery, we peer in on a gothic nightmare of cluster flies and unruly press opportunities where urban and rural clash, culminating in the fear that they have indeed replaced their manufactured urban existence with a bygone fantasy. But instead of “gentlemen farmers,” they are lost in the Depression era uncertainty that haunted Walton’s Mountain, still trying to dig their way out through marketing.
As we peek into this melancholic underside of the last decade’s promise of consumer redemption, lifestyle perfection, and personal actualization – told with irony and humor behind the doors of a large house in a small town – we are left with Josh and Brent, and their struggle to do something differently given the people they are. Josh, always uncertain about how he fits in, eager for a sense of authenticity, hails from small town Wisconsin and so he seems to feel just a bit of the imposter in the Big Apple; Brent, a son of the rural South who lost his father when he was 11, worked to put himself through both medical and business school in search of elusive stability. Josh puts on the sparkle to make himself special, while Brent strives for the perfection that brings order out of life’s chaos. Revealing their story down to its depths, they repeatedly fall short of the flawless heirloom dazzle that will bring the money rolling in to preserve a bygone way of life; in the process, Josh finds that their authenticity is not in the completion of an idyll, but in the embrace of their talents as part of the struggle for it. "From drag queen to goat farmer."
Which leaves the reader wondering about one more grand effort. Can this memoir and a reality TV show debuting on Planet Green this month save the Beekman and redeem Josh and Brent?
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