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IN BRIEF

Fiction

October 22, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS

SOUTH OF THE BIG FOUR by Don Kurtz (Chronicle Books: $19.95; 379 pp.) Less than 200 years ago, nearly all Americans farmed; now it's the most exotic of lifestyles, practiced by a dwindling few. Don Kurtz's first novel, about family farmers caught in the squeeze of rising yields, falling prices, mounting debts and competition from big-time agribusiness, brings the physical toll and the emotional rewards of this life back to us as it rumbles across the corn-and-hog belt of northern Indiana with the slow power of an International Harvester combine.

South of the Big Four railroad tracks is swampy ground where local banks have traditionally refused to lend. Arthur Conason's father grew embittered battling this land and the ascendance of younger, more scientific farmers such as Gerry Maars. Now it's Maars who is hanging on, working himself to exhaustion on more and more acres, fending off creditors, mending political fences, maintaining his loud, sometimes arrogant energy, his "eagerness and ministry, his insistence on himself in the face of the world."

Conason becomes his hired hand after years of sailing on Great Lakes ore boats. It's supposed to be a temporary job, but something about Maars--an upbeat version of Conason's father--keeps him around. And farming is the one thing Conason proves good at. Despite his insightful narrative voice, he is at odds with his family and emotionally immature, drifting into and out of affairs with a series of vulnerable women, including his sister-in-law.

Plumbing to the source of Conason's malaise takes perhaps too long, but Maars is a terrific character. Most other writers, following Sinclair Lewis' lead, would satirize him, but Kurtz shows the man in all his ham-handed idealism and cross-grained beauty.

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