'The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel' Is Kinda Like a Slavic Lake Woebegone

There ain't no party like a Slavic party, 1939. We get romance and moonshine in advance of the blitzkrieg in this humorous first novel.

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel

Publisher: Henry Holt
Length: 270 pages
Author: Magdalena Zyzak
Price: $18.63
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-01

In this fast paced, high stress, tech dominated world one can't help but long for a simpler time. Luckily for us every couple of months another apocalypse-suffixed weather system ravages the country providing a nice respite from the mad pace of our lives. These brief incidents allow us to kindle again that dream of easier days, perhaps while stranded roadside in greater Atlanta, or huddled together with family members for warmth in the blackout regions of Delaware or Pennsylvania.

If you were lucky enough to secure a copy of Magdalena Zyzak's delightful first novel, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, before society shut down, the long cold nights and frostbite were undoubtedly alleviated by this heartwarming tale.

In the fictional pre-war country of Scalvusia, it is indeed a simpler time. Society is more orderly, social hierarchy and authority are much easier to understand. Like a Slavic Lake Woebegone a bit of old world lore surrounds Odolechka and its various peasant stock citizenry. In this quaint village, a person's worth is rightfully judged according to merit. Wealth is amassed in cows and pigs, a woman's beauty rests with the sheer amount of moonshine or schnapps consumed in a single sitting, and a man can still make sweet love to his nanny goat.

But that's not to say the backwater Odolechka lacks any of the higher order emotions or delicate sensibilities ascribed to culture. Enter the endearing protagonist and novel's namesake, Barnabas Pierkiel. Educated to mastery of the alphabet by the alarmingly young age of 12 and nourished by the finest second rate Baltic paperback romance titles, young Baranabas sets his heart's desire on the fiery tempered, sultry gypsy steam-pot Roosha.

Roosha is as aloof as she is beautiful, but more troublesome, she is the kept woman of Odolechka's richest and most powerful citizen, Karl Von Grushka captain of industry, boot-and-shoe magnate. Despite her origins she is the most desirable woman in town, and despite her status with Von Grushka, Barnabas cannot help but follow the naïve romanticism of his quixotic ambition in courting her. While mildly annoyed, Rooshka doesn't exactly refute Barnabas's advances, which only encourages the boy in his fumbling romantic endeavors.

Narrated by a Soviet bureaucrat with a clandestine historical passion for his defunct homeland of Scalvusia, the novel's farcical plot progresses serenely, often humorously along with each disastrous attempt by Barnabas to woo his love. The mysterious death of Odolechka's drunken priest foreshadows tumult to come while instigating a witch hunt for the perpetrators.

In the highly superstitious, old world mode of groupthink the blame naturally falls against the town's gypsy population. To further convolute the proceedings, it is summer 1939, and the appearance of a curious stranger with a German accent is mistakenly celebrated by the town's inept mayor and chief of police.

History buffs will undoubtedly realize where The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is headed. Like most good books the story ends in fiery destruction. As a literary device this type of culmination is not only compelling, but fits nicely into the apocolyptic daydreaming of American culture at large.

However, as opposed to a fixation on the bloody end, the heroics and evil deeds of the various characters and their interactions, Zyzak makes the excellent decision to focus on the veritable calm before the storm. All the elements are lined up for a crescendo of Nazi blitzkrieg advance, but by extracting the miseries and brutalities of fascism's total warfare the audience is only in essence witness to a literary train wreck. Other than shock value and emotional manipulation, this type of sadism often stamps a round character flat by robbing it of any inner impetus to action, relying instead on an external agency to motivate development. Zyzak was wise to avoid this.

Much like Nabokov before her, Zyzak's effort in a second or perhaps third or fourth language results in a wonderfully delicious narrative. Her fanciful, continual play with language itself is a welcome departure from the often serious scope of the linear sequence, and the verbal acrobatics employed serve to prop up a sagging plot progression. Her cast of minor characters is enthralling, colorfully eccentric, and the main characters don't indulge in the overly used cliché of parabolic hyperbole. Comparable to Steinbeck's paisanos novellas, the minor characters are stifled by their own ignorance, it is an intellectual ignorance yes, but it is also an ignorance to the abject poverty and destitute nature of their existence.

For a first effort at long form, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is a wonderfully told, imaginative and quite humorous work. To accurately criticize the novel one gets the feeling that Zyzak wasn't entirely sure of the direction she was headed while writing it. What begins in the histo-regional vein of Captain Corelli's Mandolin ends up more of a Everything is Illuminated interpersonal dramady. The uncertain direction is forgivable in light of the pure pleasure of the language in reading, and the relative inexperience of the author.

For a nation that seems perpetually on the verge of splitting from within, being baked, blown over or frozen solid from without the finality of forced statism found in The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel is comforting in the realization the stalemate of political trench warfare will pass, the weather will warm and soon enough, the sun will return. For those blistery nights of the present, bundle yourself up in something warm, nestle close to one you love and laugh along at the tragic humor of this intriguing first work.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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