||A Review of: The Clearing
by Matt Sturrock
What a surprise it is to read a "literary" novel and not
be subjected to the maddeningly slow narrative progression, precious
prose, or pseudo-philosophical noodling that so often afflicts the
form. Where lesser novels succumb to stasis and tedium, The Clearing,
despite its beautiful language and close attention to character,
buffets the reader with maximum action. And in this case, the novel
being superficially about a family's war against a Mafia syndicate
in (of all places) a logging camp, the action is of a spectacularly
violent variety. Barely a chapter goes by without some tough being
pistol-whipped, stomped senseless under hobnailed boots, stuck with
a shiv, or tow-hooked by scalding buckshot into the weeds.
The story opens in 1923. A man arrives in the mill town of Nimbus,
Louisiana, charged with appraising the property for timber tycoon
Noah Aldridge, who's intent on buying it. The place is remote and
inhospitable in the extreme. The air hums with the wing-beats of
blood-sucking insects; clothes and bedsheets sour in the humidity
and never dry on the laundry line; the cemetery disgorges rotting
coffins from the mud during seasonal floods; alligators occasionally
prey upon solitary drunks stumbling home from the saloon. But Nimbus
is abutted on all sides by stands of thousand-year-old cypress-a
vast forest waiting to be converted into an equally vast fortune.
Amidst all this untapped wealth the appraiser makes a discovery
that only adds to Nimbus's worth: the local constable is Noah's
eldest son, who disappeared years earlier.
Byron Aldridge is a man in self-imposed exile. Having returned from
the trenches of World War I with no hope of reconciling himself to
the genteel life that awaited, he's fled the family estate in
Pennsylvania instead to make a living as a lawman in a variety of
frontier towns, dispensing justice with sometimes homicidal zeal.
He's damaged inside, harbouring too many of the atrocities he lived
through years earlier, and just as likely to go on a crying jag as
cave in a brawling roustabout's head with a shovel. Aldridge Sr.,
in a move that satisfies both his appetite as a capitalist and his
duty as a concerned father, buys the mill in Nimbus; he directs his
younger son, Randolph, to move down south and tend to both the
business and the worrisome Byron.
Randolph's destination is in all senses the end of the line, populated
by "jarhead white trash and single Negroes as big as bulls"
who are too unreliable or savage to hold down work anywhere else.
When they aren't toiling in the swamps under almost unendurable
conditions, they're drinking, gambling, fighting, and whoring in a
crooked establishment run by Sicilians with Chicago mob ties. Byron's
rough attempts at imposing order on such a volatile milieu have
raised the ire of powerful people, and the threat of impending
retribution hangs heavy over the camp when his younger brother
Randolph is soon tainted by Byron's madness and by the moral
degeneracy of the men around him, and it's his actions that
inadvertently escalate the hostilities in Nimbus from sporadic
skirmishes into a war of attrition. The late chapters play out as
they must, in a torrential storm of hot lead. The body count is
appalling, but none of the violent sequences in the book is some
throwaway contrivance to merely titillate the reader. The carnage
always brings with it some intangible but real diminution, and not
just for the victims. As an Aldridge brother despairingly notes
upon telling his wife he was forced to kill a man, "he felt
his real self disappearing, turning to a brown smudge in the
background of her life, a monochrome outline of who he used to
Notwithstanding the cruelty it's paired with, there's something
refreshingly appealing about this
hard-people-doing-their-duty-in-adverse-circumstances stuff; there's
a raw physicality in the writing you simply don't get from novels
set in contemporary (and sedentary) times. Consider this piece of
wonderfully described brutishness below, derived from something as
routine as loading livestock into the hold of a ship:
"The last mule was a big hinny . . . No amount of bootblows
or lashes with a deck rope could convince it to board. The chief
mate, bearded, sunburned as a brick, pulled a hickory shaft out of
a capstan and struck the mule a blow between the eyes that brought
it down in a rumble of skidding knee bone . . . The animal drunkenly
tried to stand, but two legs went over the edge and it fell thrashing
into the river, detonating against the surface. Lollis,' the mate
hollered, and a black rouster crabwalked down the canted wharf and
jumped onto the mule's back, fishing up the reins and slapping its
rump until his mount's forelegs caught lumber and pulled them both
from the current."
Gautreaux's writing is very occasionally marred by a certain
adjectival laziness as he throws around easy descriptions to create
a mood. Crops are "bug-bitten," trappers are "musky,"
dogs are "wormy," even the dark is "smelly."
And I was irked that an editor hadn't detected his repeated reliance
on one adjective in particular: "haunted". In the book's
305 pages, Gautreaux serves up "fly-haunted mules," a
"water-haunted prairie," "headache-haunted
employees," "moss-haunted [tree] trunks," a
"mud-haunted" yard, and several more elaborately described
hauntings. Meaning dwindles with every subsequent usage, and many
of the above constructions simply don't work, besides.
Still, one of the chief pleasures of The Clearing is the forthright
eloquence of Gautreaux's writing. Whether he's telling us that an
engineer "looked as though all unnecessary meat had been cooked
off of him by the heat of his engine," or that the South's
newly emergent jazz sounds to a startled Yankee like "a music
that had cast off sentiment . . . and strutted, half naked and
sweating," his descriptions provoke stunned admiration.
In praising Gautreaux's previous novel and two short story collections,
critics have referred to him as an important Southern writer, a
label Gautreaux has admitted to both puzzling over and chafing
under. This latest novel, while set in the South, is the work that
should erase that rather confining distinction. The divisions and
old animosities that linger from America's Civil War, the psychic
wounds imparted by the Great War, the burgeoning mechanization of
the early 20th century that enables humanity to pillage nature at
a terrible rate: all of these subjects transcend his Louisiana bayou
setting. Violence may be our oldest and most universal story.
Gautreaux has added a worthy chapter.