The fetid, snake-ridden swamps of Louisiana come alive in this dark, depressing and violent tale set in a lawless logging camp during the 1920s.
Two brothers rule the roost here. Randolph Aldridge is the mill manager, while his elder brother, Bryon, is the town's policeman. But their brotherly bond is not as straightforward as it seems.
Byron had initially been groomed by his father, a Pennsylvania lumber baron, to take over the family business. But then he enlisted in the First World War, from which he returned a broken man. Unable to stand the pressure of his father's expectations, Byron fled the family home in Pittsburgh, never to be heard of again...
Randolph stepped into the breach and learned the family business. But when his father discovers that Byron has been employed as a lawman in a cypress mill down south, he buys the mill and its tract of lumber. He then sends Randolph to manage it and to convince Byron to return back home, far from an easy task.
What Randolph, a city man born and bred, finds when he moves to the Nimbus Mill leaves him numbed and shocked. Not only is his brother mentally unstable and prone to be a little trigger-happy, the timber town is incredibly violent. Racism, gambling and drinking is rife.
When Randolph decides to close the local saloon on a Sunday to curb the workers' rampant alcoholism little does he know that he may as well begin digging his own grave: the saloon's owner, a Sicilian with organised crime connections, doesn't want to play ball. In refusing the Sicilian's bribes, Randolph finds himself caught up in a culture of escalating violence. It is only when his wife unexpectedly decides to join him from their home in Pittsburgh does Randolph realise the danger that he and his loved ones may be subject to...
The Clearing is one of those books I'd describe as overtly male with few female characters to lighten the mood. The violence, while never gratuitous, is nevertheless very real. You get a good feel for the turbulent, helter-skelter nature of the camp's environs and the tough, morally corrupt lives the loggers lead.
And Gautreaux really knows how to capture not just the sombre mood of the lumber mill but that period in history in which the world was changing very quickly. The arrival of the telephone is but one life-changing invention that makes its mark felt during the course of this novel.
He also has a lovely writing style and knows how to compose a striking simile -- for instance, "The nights steamed like a cow's breath" (page 225). Or this (the emphasis in italics is mine):
He pulled the accordion against him like a lover, his fingers wandering for the melody and the way a hand finds a doorknob in a midnight hallway, he found the song, playing his way into it, hoping the missing words would come and ride the notes against the silence. He closed his eyes and remembered snow, and then the words came one by one, like birds landing on a wire at sunset.
In fact, the writing throughout is quite beautiful, as this extract shows:
He held out his arms to her, but she looked to the lamp on the table. Then she turned down the wick, and he felts his real self disappearing turning to a brown smudge in the background of her life, a monochrome outline of who he used to be.
While I struggled to truly enjoy The Clearing -- I found the storyline too cloying and claustrophobic, much like the cypress forest in which it is set -- I do feel that it's going to be one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. Why? Because the characters were so memorable and well drawn; because the complicated relationship between the brothers, and their love for one another, was handled very deftly; and because the setting played such a central role, almost as if it was the main character. But in the end this book was not one I'd rave about, if only because I wasn't in the mood for such a heavy read, and that's more my fault than the author's.