Saturday, August 21, 2010
When The Grounds Soft For Diggin' (Murder In The Red Barn)
Kings of the Earth: A Novel
Having read Jon Clinch's previous novel Finn I was not entirely surprised to find that everything in Kings of the Earth starts with a corpse. He's only written two books and they both open with descriptions of a dead body in the first paragraph. You might think this trend emerging shows either a lack of creativity, or morbid obsession on the part of the author. You may even be right in a way - still ends are beginnings in the right frame. So maybe you're thinking Mr. Clinch may not have the cleanest bill of mental health. It could be he hears voices in his head. Voice is, after all what breathes life into Clinch's writing. His characters feel like authentic representatives of an older world. This is as true in Kings of the Earth as it was in Finn. What should be made clear here is that Finn was set in the late 1800's. (a re-imagining of the life of Pap Finn - from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) Kings of the Earth however, is at least partially set in 1990. Despite this fact it all works, and works very well.
The Proctor boys were raised in simpler times, and as their younger sister Donna explains, they never left them. The three brothers Vernon, Audie, and Creed live together on the family dairy farm in upstate New York. The 'farm' is actually little more than a shack. I've seen houses like this while driving through the more rural parts of Nebraska and have been shocked to find a pickup parked near, as if, against all logic, someone still lives there. A writer of less imagination would surely set a horror story in a place like this. Not John Clinch though, no suh. He chose to tell a story with real emotional resonance. A story that asks us how civilized are we, really? Modernization seen through the gray lens of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Vernon, the oldest is the fresh corpse detailed on page one. Though trust me when I say that knowing that will not ruin anything for you if you decide to give it a chance. The chapters are short and the perspective changes every couple of pages. The time shifts as well. From the the different stages of the Proctor's lives. We see defining moments from their lives. (early childhood in the 30's, after the death of their mother in the 60's up to the recent past of the 80's and a few select spots in between) The book's most endearing character, at least from my view was the middle son Audie. Audie is described as feeble-minded in the books synopsis on the front flap. He is quite clearly mentally handicapped. As a result the sections from his perspective are very short and direct and show a childlike innocence. At one point early in the novel, after seeing a children's play of Peter Pan Audie rides standing on the back of a tractor with his arms spread out in imitation of the flying children.
The central plot centers around Vernon's death, which is thought to be a murder. What eventually plays out raises questions of the legal system and law enforcement that may remind some of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird. The remaining Proctor boys are railroaded by authorities who want things to be wrapped up quickly. Being seen simple and somewhat unsavory by most they are convenient targets. Of course what actually happened is much more complicated.
I'll likely never look at rundown home the same way again. This book really made me think about the world in which we live. It made me consider just how isolated is too isolated - and also how very close that boundary between the old world and the new one really are. With his second novel Jon Clinch has cemented his gift for capturing the past in his voice. He writes no more than he needs to. I would compare him to Cormac McCarthy in that respect. He is blunt and graphic and vividly real. I will gladly read whatever he writes next, and I won't so much as bat an eye if it starts it with a description of someone newly deceased.
*mini disclaimer - the song chosen for this review was not entirely my idea - Clinch actually quotes the song himself following the opening dedication. I could've searched high and low, and wouldn't have found a better fit.