Don Noble
1:46 pm
Mon May 31, 2004

The Clearing

I have recently read in the New York Times that the percentage of trade fiction purchased by males has dropped from thirty-three to about twenty percent. Gentlemen: if you are going to read one new novel in 2004, let it be this one. You won't be sorry.

The Clearing is Tim Gautreaux's fourth volume of fiction, and it is being touted as his breakthrough novel. This time the publishers and publicity people have got it right. The Clearing is a powerful, totally engrossing novel, a literary page-turner with all the action any reader could desire and with the fine style of a Joseph Conrad, not a Tom Clancy.

The setting, the actual "clearing," is a lumber camp named Nimbus in the Louisiana bayous, in 1924 and 1925. The lumber being cleared is a virgin cyprus forest, trees over a thousand years old, that will be made into railroad ties, water tanks, and back porches in New England.

The place is Hell and it is Eden. The weather is wretched, hot, humid, sometimes stormy, mosquito-filled, disease-ridden. Occasionally a logger is carried away by a hungry alligator, and the loggers' wives, what few of them there are, kill water mocassins and rattlesnakes on their front porches every day.

It is also pristine. There are birds and the water and of course the magnificent trees themselves. It is, like so much unspoiled nature, a paradise which can be saved and savored or destroyed, lost. It is a kind of garden, of course, which has all the potential to be a heaven or hell, depending on what the humans who have come there will make of it.

The humans. If conflict is the core of fiction, no one will be shortchanged in The Clearing. Not only do all the men have to contest with the trials of the swamp, they have themselves and one another to fight. The loggers and sawyers and mechanics work like dogs and at the end of the day most head into the saloon. There they gamble and drink themselves senseless and fight, with knives, razors, pistols, literally anything that can inflict pain and cause damage.

The local lawman, Byron Aldridge, is himself an emotionally wounded man who wades into these melees with a pistol and a shovel. He figures that even if he has to hurt and kill a number of men, he will save others by stopping the brawl. The ends justify the bloody means. His brother, Randolph, the manager, another Anglo from Pennsylvania, is at first horrified by the barbarity of it all, but he adjusts.

In conflict with the brothers is an adversary one would not expect. The saloon and the prostitutes who live there are owned by Buzetti, an utterly ruthless Italian mobster with Mafia connections in Chicago. When the Aldridge brothers try to close him down, to bring some kind of peace and safety to Nimbus, they are confronted by the Mob, brought in from up north.

The climax of The Clearing is a kind of high noon. The train with the Mafia is coming to Nimbus. Who will stand with the lawman and his brother?

Undergirding this world of violence is the first world war. Byron had been in France for all of it, as a representative for American munitions makers and then as a United States soldier. He is forever traumatized.

But in a ploy I have never seen before, it turns out that the Italian mobsters were also in the Great War, also thoroughly traumatized and dehumanized by the orgy of killing, by what they did and what they witnessed. Byron speaks for them all. "I was hoping I was through with the war . . . but this whole damned world's turned into one."

These men, Italians and Anglos, will carry their hurt through the rest of their lives--those who live, that is.

I have recently read in the New York Times that the percentage of trade fiction purchased by males has dropped from thirty-three to about twenty percent. Gentlemen: if you are going to read one new novel in 2004, let it be this one. You won't be sorry.

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