Tim Gautreaux's new novel, The Clearing, starkly reminds us that the casualties of war aren't limited to the dead.
The book begins in the year 1923 on a Louisiana mill site called Nimbus. Without any concern for conservation, timber companies routinely buy a tract of land, hire crews of men to cut down the trees, and then process the logs into wood products on site. Since work lasts only as long as the cypress, the settlements are temporary. In the case of Nimbus, this means few trappings of a civilized society: no church, no school, one company general store, a saloon, and one lawman for 500 mostly male inhabitants.
The constable, Byron Aldridge, is a tortured man whose eyes are, as Gautreaux (the writer-in-residence at Southeastern Louisiana University) adroitly describes, "like those of a great horse strangling in a dollar's worth of fence wire." Heir apparent to a lumber empire located in Pittsburgh, Byron returns from World War I irrevocably changed after viewing on a daily basis such horrors as "bodies like piles of rags, maybe ten thousand piles of rags." Unwilling to work in the family business, he becomes a policeman but soon wanders westward. In Nimbus, he is the only barrier -- however thin -- to anarchy. His war is now private, and he solves bloody drunken saloon fights with a vicious decisiveness that has produced a graveyard of 30 bodies.
His family hasn't heard from Byron in years, but a company operative, scouting the Nimbus site for possible acquisition, serendipitously discovers him. His father, displaying a mixture of paternal love and economic voracity, dispatches his loyal younger son, Randolph, to purchase Nimbus, manage the mill and bring Byron home. In a surprising departure from his previous books' native Louisiana cast, Gautreaux employs Randolph as the main character of the novel.
It is a worthwhile decision. Through Randolph, Gautreaux provides a fascinating historical snapshot of the forestry industry in southeast Louisiana, but more vital to the novel is his vision as an outsider. He is a man who "had heard a great deal about suffering but experienced none of it," and so we follow his neophyte steps as he encounters the chaotic savagery of Nimbus and attempts to understand a brother he no longer knows.
Part of Randolph's education is May, one of the settlement's few women and Randolph's mixed-race housekeeper. She is educated and light-skinned, but trapped by what others know of her ancestry. Her only chance is to start anew by moving North and rejecting part of her heritage by pretending to be white. The piece of evidence she is missing is a white baby. She uses Randolph one evening, "closing her eyes as though her thoughts were far away from him and the creaking bed."
One man owns the bar while another, Buzetti -- a war veteran and leader of a Sicilian crime family -- controls its operations, which include gambling and prostitution. He exercises force, often deadly, to manage his businesses, and he is the antithesis of Randolph. But Randolph has little choice, which he reflects upon during a conversation with Buzetti: "Randolph understood that Buzetti lived in a world where a house could be burned for ten dollars, a tree spiked for twenty, a man sleeping next to his wife shot dead for a wad of five-dollar bills."
He also knows it is a world that his brother has chosen. In answer to Buzetti's spiking a log, Byron has a "talk" with him that results in Byron pulling one of Buzetti's bars into the river with a steamboat. In grave detail, Gautreaux pushes the inexorable events along as Randolph attempts to quell the violence, even if he must be violent himself.
The Clearing has little of the well-known humor gracing Gautreaux's first novel, The Next Step in the Dance, and awarding-winning short fiction. Nor are there any of his customary plot twists. For this work, he doesn't need them. Gautreaux has expertly crafted a harsh, existential world in which all the players are soldiers fighting for survival. And although it's entertaining on the surface, its content should provoke a deeper investigation. Gautreaux, employing all his considerable skills as a writer, challenges the reader to ask: once the war is over, when does the fighting really end?