The Clearing

by Tim Gautreaux
ISBN: 0375414746

Post Your Opinion
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 arrives.
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 be."
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.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us