The Ant Farm
Posted by Paul Samael on Saturday, February 2, 2013 Under: Book reviews
If someone had told me that I would enjoy a novel about statistics in the poultry industry and knitting (yes, knitting), I would probably have responded that I was more likely to develop a keen interest in the drying times of different brands of matt emulsion. But one of the things I have come to enjoy about reviewing free fiction by self-published authors is the potential to be surprised – both by the quality of some of the writing and by my own enjoyment of books about subjects which, ordinarily, I probably wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. And so it was with “The Ant Farm” by Neil Hetzner, which turned out to be about a lot more than battery chickens and endless balls of yarn.
Our hero, 62-year old Gene Almsson, loves his job – which involves criss-crossing the US explaining to poultry producers how they can make use of his firm’s statistics to improve their profit margins. But when he is forced into early retirement, he struggles to adapt to domestic life, deprived of the reassuring rituals of travel, sales presentations and hotels.
In this respect, the starting point of the novel reminded me of the film “Up in the Air”, in which George Clooney plays a man whose identity – like Gene’s - is closely bound up with his work, which consists of travelling the US telling people they’ve been fired (because their own employers are too cowardly to deliver the bad news themselves). He too loves his job (or rather, the lifestyle that goes with it) but finds that his role is under threat from an even more dastardly corporate plan to sack people remotely, by video-link (which for him means no more travelling, enjoying the perks of 4-5 star hotels etc). Both “Up in the Air” and “The Ant Farm” also have a similar line in wry, humorous observation.
But this is where the parallels with the film largely come to an end. Because unlike the George Clooney character in “Up in the Air”, Gene Almsson has a wife and kids – although for most of his career, he hasn’t had all that much to do with any of them, having effectively outsourced the business of child-rearing to his wife, Maryellen. Now that the kids have all flown the nest, she feels (not unreasonably) that it’s her turn to do something she feels passionate about, which is to expand her knitting business. So no sooner has Gene returned to the nest than he finds himself being left largely to his own devices, struggling to manage the domestic chores and find other tasks to fill the yawning void left by a lifetime devoted to explaining poultry statistics. Then one of the kids boomerangs back home with her toddler daughter – and Gene finds himself being roped into childcare for the first time in his life. Will he cope?
If this material were being made into a Hollywood movie, Gene would no doubt overcome his aversion to cosy domesticity, develop a heart-warming relationship with his grand-daughter and everyone would live happily ever after. But “The Ant Farm” gives us a much more realistic take on the transition from work to retirement and the demands of looking after a small child at an age when you should really be putting your feet up. So if you’re after a Hollywood-style ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.
Indeed some readers may find the ending hard to stomach (please excuse the pun – all will become clear when you get there). But I didn’t feel that the novel excluded the possibility of redemption for Gene. Through his encounters with various other characters, he is shown glimpses of what a more fulfilling retirement might be like – and it isn’t portrayed as an impossible goal, it’s just that the older you get, the harder it is to change your ways (especially for a character like Gene who’s become semi-institutionalised by his many years of work). So although others may have a problem with the ending, I didn’t – but I’ll admit to being a bit biased because my own novel has come in for criticism on that front (see this blog post).
Overall, “The Ant Farm” is a quirky, engaging and very well-observed tragi-comic novel. I have just one fairly minor criticism: for me, some sections towards the end could have done with a bit of editing down, because I found myself thinking “yes, I get the picture, you don’t need to reinforce it with more of the same.” But it’s possible that my reaction was as much due to impatience to get to the end and find out what happens (which is obviously a good thing).
I haven’t read anything else by Neil Hetzner yet, but on the strength of this novel, I will certainly take a look at some of his other stuff - he appears to have tackled a surprisingly wide variety of material, ranging from drug addiction to the priesthood. "The Ant Farm" can be downloaded from Smashwords here (it was free at the time of this review) and you can take a look at the rest of Neil Hetzner's work here (also all free at the time of this review).
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