Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This book imagines the lives of Adolphe, Hubert, and Peter, three German stepbrothers whom August Sander photographs as they walk through the Rhineland countryside to a Saturday night dance. The date is May 1, 1914. Sander had hoped to produce an ambitious photographic collection called “Man of the Twentieth Century,” but the war deterred him. Thematically this book brings part of Sander’s dream to fruition.

The book’s twenty-seven chapters are divided thematically into three interwoven strands. Nine of the chapters are essentially philosophical essays that deal with salient elements of contemporary society; some of these nine chapters focus on such historically significant figures as Henry Ford, Sarah Bernhardt, and Diego Rivera as their lives impinge upon contemporary society and upon the lives of the book’s main characters or relate to the Sander photograph. Nine chapters deal with the lives of the three leading characters, all of whom die before the novel ends. Nine chapters deal with the obsession of Peter Mays, the first-person narrator, an American computer programmer living in Boston, to discover the story behind the Sander photograph that he has found among his family’s possessions.

Well-informed about photography and about social history, Powers has written one of the most compelling and demanding novels of the 1980’s. The overall conception of this novel is awesomely large and complex. It is a structural masterpiece that will challenge intelligent readers.