The incredible, edible novel

This satire of the poultry business breaks millions of eggs – and a few hearts

There are enough hens in America for everyone to have one. And each year, they produce more than 6 billion eggs, so get cracking. In the mid 1970s, medical concerns about cholesterol just about broke the industry, but recently, all the king's horses and all the king's men have been refining those studies, and eggs have been rolling back into dieticians' recommendations.

If you've still got an appetite after Eric Schlosser's "FastFoodNation," break open "Fresh Eggs," a plucky satire by Rob Levandoski. With this fowl story, the industry dies the death of a thousand pecks.

Calvin Cassowary is just trying to do what's right when he takes over the family farm. He'd rather teach art at the local high school, but when his father dies, the homestead falls to him, and he's not about to let down four generations of Cassowarys.

He comes from a line of farmers who lived in perfect harmony with their crops and animals, but today that pastoral ideal is for the birds. To survive in this business, you've got to be big. And so Calvin plows down a path of expansion that eventually buries him under a million chickens, $1 million debt, and 100 tons of manure a day.

At every step, he's reassured by a chummy representative from Gallinipper Foods, a giant cartel that controls its members as effectively as its members control their hens. Levandoski has a well-tuned ear for the forced enthusiasm of industry spokesmen, and he fries their carefully designed euphemisms sunnyside down. The annual meeting of egg producers, led by Bob Gallinipper himself – "with a smile as wide as a slice of cantaloupe" – is a masterly bit of parody.

The scientists at corporate headquarters introduce marvelous improvements every year, tweaking every aspect of egg production from the chickens' feed to their genes, rushing inexorably toward the holy grail: a hen that lays one egg a day and eats its own waste.

If you thought eggs came from cartons, this tour of the industry is a rude awakening. These are not animals, they're "egg-laying machines." Levandoski takes us into the sexing room, where female chicks are sped on their hormone-induced way while male chicks are thrown in metal drums to be "recycled along with other hatchery by-products." He shows us the women who cut off 20 chicken beaks per minute. We watch and listen as "spent" chickens are grabbed in groups of three and stuffed into trash boxes to make room for fresh hens. The mechanics of modern farming are enough to upset anyone's stomach.

It's particularly upsetting to Calvin's daughter, Rhea. When her father goes corporate, she keeps a few of their old birds in the yard. She even names them, and sells their brown eggs to neighbors. Calvin warns her against all these unprofitable entanglements, but at 6, she doesn't understand interest rates or property taxes. She can't follow the logic that requires more borrowing, more animals, and more cruelty. "We run a chicken jail," she announces one day.

And then feathers start to grow on her chest. By the time she's 12, they cover her entire body. Home schooling seems best. Her hyperallergic stepmother buys her some turtlenecks and then takes her to a specialist. "As far I can tell," the doctor notes, "feathers are symptomatic of only two conditions – either you're a bird or an Indian chief."

A quirky psychiatrist – one of a dozen wonderfully witty cameos in this novel – tells Rhea she's a swan, but he suggests to Calvin that she's experiencing a sympathetic reaction, a feathery version of stigmata: "We know that the thoughts and images our minds create can have physical effects. Rhea's feathers may be a physical manifestation of her sorrow for the way your chickens are treated." Her father fires him immediately.

(Because of some ribald sexual content, you might want to pluck this book from the hands of middle-school readers. Not that they're likely to see it. Agriculture lobbyists would run around like chickens with their heads cut off if any school tried to use this novel to study satire or contemporary ethics.)

Eventually, all Calvin's problems come home to roost: interest rates rise, egg prices drop, new suburban neighbors sue over the smell, and protesters for and against the consumption of eggs scramble into action.

But Levandoski never loses his humanity in this light novel, even if Calvin sometimes does. His witty exposé of the egg business is always yoked to a sensitive consideration of this strange, kind girl and her baffled dad. By the end, it's impossible to know which came first: his satire of the industry or his compassion for these characters. The conscience is a fragile thing, and "Fresh Eggs" handles it with care.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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