Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
American movies, shown around the world, often glorify violence, especially righteous violence. Someone avenging a wrong or protecting others from evil, metes out justice with a satisfying, if understated, honor. The bad guys are often dispatched with a sharp witticism to lessen the impact of the violence that has taken a life, making it more palatable to the viewing audience. This same public reacts with horror if the real violence of war, dead and dismembered bodies, are broadcast on their television screens. With the exception of a few films like Unforgiven or Saving Private Ryan, these movies rarely deal with the effects killing and violence have on the men who commit such acts, even in a righteous cause.
In The Clearing, author Tim Gautreaux delves into a violent culture and examines it from many angles. The story centers around two brothers, Byron and Randolph Aldridge, sons of a Pennsylvania lumber baron. Byron is the oldest and is being groomed to take over the business from their father when he leaves for World War I. He returns from the war just a scarred remnant of his former self and has no interest in the family business. Byron heads out on his own, west and south from his Pennsylvania home and disappears from sight. The family loses all trace of him until several years later when a company employee spots him as a lawman in a mill town deep in the cypress swamps of Louisiana.
In Byron's absence, Randolph had assumed his place in the family business. Once Byron is found, their father buys the mill town and surrounding timber tract and sends Randolph there to be the mill manager and to try to convince Byron to come back home. Nimbus, Louisiana is a rough place to live. It's hot with stultifying humidity, the swamp water often overtakes the town, alligators and snakes abound, and the men work long, dangerous days in the swamp or in the mill. The one plot of land in the town not owned by the mill is the saloon, where the men go to blow off steam in search of booze, prostitutes, and gambling. Drunk men who suspect they've been cheated at cards often react with knives, razors, or guns. As the law in the town, Byron wanders into the fights with either a short-handled shovel or his gun to break up the fight in any possible way before one man kills another, or many.
Because he doesn't own the saloon, Randolph can't control what goes on there. The saloon is owned by a Sicilian named Buzetti who is connected to other organized crime figures throughout the country. Byron has been a constant thorn in Buzetti's side as he sets the law in the town, and can't be bought off with money. The first time Randolph sees a melee break out in the bar, Byron brings it under control by calmly shooting the main combatant dead. Randolph is shocked by the violence, not just of the men, but by his brother's unflinching use of it to keep the peace. The next day Byron explains it to him:
Byron was turning the hat in his hands. "It doesn't bother me that I shot him. I had to do that." He looked up. "What if that roomful had turned on us?"
Randolph remembered the press and smell of wild, drunk men. "My Lord."
"I didn't feel anything after I did it, if that's what you're wondering. Right now, I'm ready to go to the dance." He made a horrible smile, showing all of this teeth at once.
His brother didn't know what to say. If lumber was miscounted, or a steam engine broke down, he could tell someone what to do, but Byron's broken self was beyond his ken. Still, he knew he couldn't give up on finding some way to reach him. He looked over the assistant manager's spittoon and asked, offhandedly, "By, tell me about France."
His brother flipped his hat on askew. "You read about it in the papers, didn't you?"
While Byron is nonchalant about the men he must injure or kill to keep things under control in the town, he is tortured by his memories of war. He listens to maudlin songs on his Victrola, and is often moved to tears. Randolph tries many ways to reach his brother and draw him out of his shell. He gets Byron to tell about his experiences during the war and is horrified by the tales he hears. As one character says later on, "Crazy's a kind of dead. You can't hardly come back from it, either."
The brothers decide the best way to keep the violence among the workers to a minimum is to keep the saloon closed on Sundays. This also ensures a sober workforce for Monday mornings. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't sit well with Buzetti. When sabotage damages machinery in the mill and injures a few men, the brothers feel they must respond. An escalating cycle of violence ensues with neither side willing to back down, and it begins to exact a price from Randolph's soul as well as Byron's.
In this midst of this stew of sultry weather, hard-boiled men, and foreboding violence, Randolph's wife, Lillian, arrives unannounced one day. Unwilling to be separated from her husband any longer, she decides she must make a new life in Louisiana. With the birth of his housekeeper's baby, Randolph finds himself dealing with domestic issues for which he's unprepared. After living in New Orleans for a while, Lillian moves into Randolph's house in Nimbus. It is she who becomes the catalyst that begins to transform the town into a community. Her presence also adds another target for Buzetti to threaten when he's at war with the brothers.
A truce is maintained between the Sicilians and the Aldridge brothers for a while. Buzetti finally convinces Byron to let the saloon open on Sundays again. Byron knows why Buzetti can resort to violence so easily.
"How many Germans did you kill?"
"Austrians," Buzetti corrected, his voice less harsh. "It was Austrians."
Byron looked down at the bag. "Why did we do it?"
Buzetti cocked his head. "Because somebody gave the permission. That's a great thing, permission. After the war, I learned to give it to myself, you know?"
The Sunday opening, however, leads to another spiral of violence, leading to a final showdown with the Sicilians, who decide they must strike at something close to the brothers' hearts.
The Clearing never treats the violence as ordinary. It's always shocking and gripping. Byron and Randolph find themselves in a dilemma. If they don't control the violence, they can't run the mill and keep everyone employed. If they don't allow Buzetti to run the saloon in the manner he wants, he could destroy everything they have. In their private war, how far will they go even if their cause is righteous?
Tim Gautreaux packs much more into this novel than an examination of the effect violence has on men and a community. He's perfectly captured a time when the world was changing in quantum leaps. The Great War destroyed countries and millions of lives in one way or another. Throughout the years the novel spans, the telephone becomes an increasing presence in their life, changing not just the way they do business, but how they deal with Buzetti and breaking news. The Clearing also deals with race relations in a realistic light. Randolph treats all the men who work in the town equally, but he is aware that the world around them doesn't. At one point, a sheriff breaks up a fight by shooting the one white man involved because he knows the only doctor in town won't work on coloreds. Lillian shows Randolph the wisdom of hiring family men who are less likely to drink and gamble away their weekly pay.
Nimbus and the surrounding locale come alive in Tim Gautreaux's prose. Here is a foreign world both dangerous in its environs and yet home to the Aldridges. It is the Aldridges that bring the real strength to this wonderful novel. Randolph is a good moral man in a world he can barely control at times. His love for Byron never wavers, constantly trying to find a way to bring his brother out of his personal hell and back into the family. Byron lives on the edge of self-destruction, intent on doing the right thing even if it destroys him. Lillian transforms from a privileged and pampered wife to a woman who's not afraid to take control and say what's on her mind.
The Clearing is a tour de force for a new voice in American literature. Tim Gautreaux has written a novel that not only deals with the big ideas, but also with the little, yet important, things that make up human life. In a story that brims with violence in a world threatening to spin out of control, he has written a love story. Randolph's love for his brother, and for his wife, is the shining light that leads to deliverance. The Clearing is not a novel you soon forget.
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