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FINAL HARVEST: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Andrew H. Malcolm (Times Books: $17.95; 320 pp.)

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Time was that the smug West or East coaster, secure in the knowledge that nothing of real significance occurs between the two coasts, could jet over the vast checkerboard of the Midwest and dismiss the region as a monotonous sea of waving grain, groomed by anonymous, plodding farmers.

No more. Amid a litany of well-publicized financial woes, the Midwest has emerged as our most dramatic domestic war zone, pitting farmers against elected officials, bankers and other creditors, and sometimes each other. At stake is a way of life, a fertile field of traditional American values stretching across countless agrarian communities.

On Sept. 29, 1983, on a vacant, bank-owned farm in southwestern Minnesota, someone shot dead Rudy Blythe, the 42-year-old owner of the bank, and his 37-year-old loan officer, Toby Thulin. A native Midwesterner and Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, Andrew H. Malcolm covered the story for the Times and has written a formidable study--part narrative, part essay--that discerns a tragedy of national significance in 10 foggy acres of Minnesota prairie. For Malcolm, one fatal collision reveals the fundamental tensions, the inexorable, tragic forces now blighting the Heartland.

To make his case, Malcolm interweaves the stories of the tragic antagonists--their backgrounds, families, dreams and ill-fated actions--with a sweeping overview of the Midwestern ethos and of the economic forces that have chewed up old reliable maxims like so much wheat in a combine. It is one of Malcolm’s triumphs that his bankers--cardboard villains in Hollywood renditions of the farm crisis--are as plausibly and poignantly jeopardized as his farmers. Confronted with exorbitant interest rates, plummeting crop prices and depreciating land values, bankers like Rudy Blythe who borrowed money to sustain their banks have faced a financial apocalypse equal to that of farmers. For Blythe no less than James Jenkins and son Steven--the farmers whose 10 acres Blythe’s bank had repossessed--hard work, austerity and other mainstay virtues could no longer purchase the American Dream.

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How that dream soared, only to die, is the narrative and thematic heart of this account. Malcolm draws from firsthand observation, extensive interviews and his own green imagination to relate how Rudy Blythe and James Jenkins, controlled by economic forces they had not foreseen, met on a murderous field in a struggle to preserve their fading dreams.

In purchasing the Buffalo Ridge State Bank in Ruthton, Minn., in 1977, Blythe had realized a longstanding ambition to own a small-town bank and exert community leadership. Working a piece of land, James Jenkins had yearned to reconstruct a life for himself after a devastating divorce--and to pass that farming life on to his son. Skillfully arranging complex story elements, Malcolm marches through the events leading up to the tragedy, the killings themselves, the mystery of who fired the shots, and the ultimate trial and murder conviction of 18-year-old Steven Jenkins after his father committed suicide. Mixing flights of poetic eloquence with the plain-spoken language of newspaper journalism, Malcolm convinces us of the richness of these dreams and the distinctly middle American tragedy of their demise.

It is a gripping story, all the more vivid in our imagination because these were real people, three men who came to a bloody end and one teen-ager convicted for murder in a sensational trial--the stuff of front page New York Times stories and Dan Rather’s Evening News. And judging from his frequent, usually disparaging references to previous media coverage, one senses that Malcolm intends this book as a corrective, the kind of in-depth examination the story deserves. As perhaps one might anticipate from a veteran print journalist, Malcolm is particularly unkind to the rival medium of television, never missing an opportunity to remark on how obtrusive were TV cameras and reporters, how superficial was television coverage. Accurate as he may be in describing “well-coiffed TV types” descending on a small town, there is a touch of snobbery, a trace of privilege in such comments coming from a writer afforded the expansive format of a book or even a newspaper to expound on the implications of the story. “Transmitted through the air as tiny electronic dots,” he writes of TV coverage of the trial, “the characters in the legal drama had been transformed into celebrities, polished into a distorted replica of themselves, seemingly always involved in dramatic confrontations, seemingly always speaking in 20-second snippets. . . .”

Fine and dandy. But Malcolm need not wage war against other media across the spacious plains of his book. Without self-serving comparisons, “Final Harvest” can stand on its own merits. Exhaustively piling up details of lives and psyches, asking searching questions, Malcolm has filed the most penetrating report we have yet from the farm front.

Given his opportunity, however, Malcolm is not averse to using some mirror tricks of his own. It is a curiosity of our era that what has been called “faction"--that strange hybrid blending apparent facts with a writer’s imagination--is frequently more compelling than either nonfiction or fiction. Ironically, Malcolm’s dreaded TV news may have helped create our taste for the stuff, exciting in us a craving for a true story in print to be as entertaining, as riveting as the images in TV news.

Be that as it may, though, a reporter by training, Malcolm at times employs the devices of “faction” to tell his story, and it is in the company of such “faction” classics as “In Cold Blood” that the publisher wishes his book to be placed. Frequently, Malcolm invokes a fiction writer’s license in describing characters and action. We hear James Jenkins’ thoughts and see his actions while he commits suicide, an event witnessed by no one other than the late Mr. Jenkins. “Gently,” we are told, the farmer squeezes the trigger. Similarly, the thoughts and many of the actions of Rudy Blythe are described in vivid detail as the banker is fired upon, flees on foot and is shot dead. Here Malcolm had no living witness who admitted to the shooting, much less an interviewer’s access to the mind of the deceased.

While Malcolm’s method has much precedent and is not inherently questionable, it does create doubt regarding the authenticity to which this narrative apparently aspires. One suspects him, for example, of inventing or at least laundering dialogue at times for the sake of storytelling and when precise dialogue would be hard to reconstruct. As with many other instances of “faction,” the general effect is as ambiguous as it is entertaining--how much really happened as the author or his sources report it, how much is Malcolm the budding fiction writer? One’s tolerance for this kind of ambiguity depends primarily on the claims a book makes for itself. Except for the publisher’s stated desire, all we have to work with in this case is Malcolm’s known background, his presumed adherence to reportorial standards. Unfortunately, Malcolm himself is silent on the subject.

Luckily, such considerations in the end are slight when compared to what the author has accomplished. One of the real pleasures of reading this book is that in countless sensory observations, the Midwest comes hauntingly alive. As a native of the region, Malcolm can place us there with at times breathtaking authority, making us see and smell a place many of us have never known or sorely neglected. “The fields . . . sit there like time itself, silent and dark and taken for granted. In winter, the fields are sleeping. In spring, they are wet and foul. By fall, they are dried and tired. But come summer, the fields are alive with animals and insects and tractors and lush, green growth that is lovingly tended by men in dusty baseball caps who swarm about the edges and dash across the middle with implements and put finishing touches on the soil as a sculptor might before his clay dries.”

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Focusing on a subject of vital importance, this is a large book with small flaws, as specific in its sense of moment and place as a prairie town water tower on which some daring high school kid has artfully inscribed his name and that of his true love. And like a water tower, “Final Harvest” will cast a long and brooding shadow in the mind of any reader desiring to comprehend the torments of a region. In telling the story of one extreme occurrence, Malcolm has indeed probed a region and a nation, intimating the extent of suffering and social upheaval occurring before our eyes, the savage grip of falling dreams.


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