Johnny Red by David Barringer
Factory farming is a cruel business. Animals live in cramped quarters, wallowing in their own filth until the day they are shipped off for slaughter. But most people don’t seek out this information and never learn what takes place between the live chicken and the fried chicken. David Barringer is out to reach people who don’t do their research in his first fictional novel, Johnny Red.
The story is told through the eyes of the title character, a rock red chicken. Johnny is raised on a family-owned farm where the chickens are taken care of and raise properly. Then, as he is becoming a young rooster, he is shipped off to a factory farm called the Pen.
From the instant Johnny first struts into the Pen, he is met with a way of life entirely opposite from what he is accustomed. Chickens are thin and frail, missing feathers and parts of their beaks. They are driven mad to the point of killing one another for no reason. While witnessing all the horrors of life on a factory farm, Johnny only has one thing on his mind: Ruth, a hen he saw for only a brief moment while in transit. When Johnny finally meets up with Ruth, a relationship blossoms and the two of them put up with the hardships of the Pen together. However, the Pen isn’t the worst of what they have to endure. Johnny becomes a fighting cock and Ruth an egg-layer, then the two of them run off into the wild, only to run across situations that domesticated animals aren't prepared to handle.
Barringer has obviously done his research. He is meticulous in his portrayal of life as a chicken, detailing everything from what and how they eat, to the roosting and fighting patterns. Because his characters aren’t merely personified animals, they are easy to get attached to, making the facts about factory farming harder to stomach. The conditions the chickens in the book are forced to endure are enough to at least make the most carnivorous of folks run out and buy free-range.
Barringer changes the style of his writing from time to time, especially towards the end of the novel. In one chapter he tells part of the story and then breaks it up with a cut-up list of what the chickens have eaten along the way. It detracts from the narrative. In another later chapter, he quits using Johnny as the narrator and instead tells about Johnny and Ruth’s travels using the point of views of several animals they encounter that day. The reader doesn’t get any information this way (except when the otter tells his story) that couldn’t have been gotten from Johnny. Stylistic changes like these seem gimmicky, like the author used them to keep himself interested in writing the novel rather than to keep the reader enveloped in it.
Johnny Red is a pretty run-of-the-mill love story. The two of them meet, endure hardships and stick it out to the end. There isn’t much about the book, besides the fact that the main characters are chickens, that distinguishes it from other love stories. But, like Uptown Sinclair’s The Jungle, the value of this book can be found in the text and not so much in the author’s craftsmanship. Barringer explores the day-to-day struggles of life on a factory farm and tries to soften the reality by cushioning it with fiction. The story is pretty transparent, but his knowledge is relentless, giving the reader a chance to open their eyes to a world they might have otherwise never known.
Johnny Red by David Barringer
Word Riot Press