Iowa writer-farmer Zachary Michael Jack, author of “Corn Poll: A Novel of the Iowa Caucuses,” regaled some 30 corny diners Friday with tales of horror and woe from the literary latitudes of eastern Iowa.
Jack heaped special praise on the fresh soups served up by Jay Hartz, owner of the Hotel Pattee, who gave lavish attention to every detail of the corn-themed meal, which also included corn muffins, corn bread and corn biscuits.
Set in the semi-mythical town of Hereford, Iowa, “Corn Poll” is a roman à clef and teems with cleverly named and thinly disguised characters, such as the political operative and party chair Prince Rebus, journalists George Agropolis and Donna Sawyers and politicians Rochelle Boxman, Paul Paule and Mike Santoro.
The hero of “Corn Poll” is one Preston Truman Jacobs, erstwhile reporter for a minor suburban daily near Denver. For most of the novel, Jacobs is poised between the twin attractions of Amethyst Gilchrest, ambitiously blonde New York Times correspondent, and the winsome Katie Clarke, daughter of Herb Clarke, editor of the local Hereford newspaper.
Herb Clarke is a crusty, prickly, hard-bitten newsman “who’s lived in Hereford all his life, knows all the secrets and bows down to no one,” as Jack described him — rather far-fetchedly — Friday in Perry. The digital revolution has taught most U.S. newspaper editors and publishers how to bow.
After dinner, Jack read a few passages from his novel. He paused before beginning the final one and said, “Well, I could read one more –or should we just keep eating?” His praise of the quality of the food served by Hartz was indeed boundless — with perhaps a winking allusion to the Midwestern fashion for wintertime overeating.
Jack is a seventh-generation Iowan who works his family’s Heritage Farm in Jones County. He is also an assistant professor of English at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., and is sometimes called on to commute to the campus daily. The duty would be roughly the same as driving back and forth every day to a job in Des Moines from a home in Iowa City.
Jack also chatted with his fellow diners about the prospects for the Iowa Caucuses as a fixture of future presidential politics. He said he thinks the caucuses are “in danger” and will continue to be challenged by other states wishing to “leap frog” Iowa and capture the premier place in the primaries.
“As Iowa becomes more autonomous and less predictable,” Jack said, “we’ll have a harder and harder time keeping our first place.” He said the caucuses could come to be lumped together in a regional arrangement with New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Let’s hold on to the goodness we have,” Jack said.