By Tim Gautreaux (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp., $24 )
The author signs copies of his book, 6 p.m. Aug 5 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
Tim Gautreaux has long been a writer’s writer. He’s a master of the clear sentence, the perfectly pitched tone; you could set a clock by his stories’ pacing. As a result, he’s become a regular in top-tier annual anthologies like The Best American Short Stories. But for all his skillevident in his two short story collections and his first novel, The Next Step in the DanceGautreaux has never been a particularly popular writer, though he does have his devotees.
If there’s any justice in the universe, this will be rectified by the recent release of his novel The Clearing, a riveting, moving account of two brothers, Byron and Randolph Aldridge, who struggle to run a logging operation deep in the Louisiana bayou in the early 1920s. At the book’s outset, Byron, who ran away from his wealthy Pittsburgh family after returning from World War I, has established himself as a draconian lawman in the chaotic Nimbus camp, 70 miles from the nearest town. His logging-baron father, eager to rein Byron in, buys the camp and sends the younger Randolph to run itand to watch over his brother. Shades of Joseph Conrad color the book’s first several chapters, as Randolph makes his way from Yankee high society to the seething world of Deep South logging. Once reunited, the brothers find themselves enmeshed in a deadly dance with forces at times beyond their control: the local mafia, who run the camp’s saloon; the workers, who kill themselves off in drunken set-tos almost as quickly as they fell trees; and the bayou itself, whose interminable heat and rain play havoc with the camp’s operations.
Like several other Southern writers of his generation, among them William Gay and Tom Franklin, Gautreaux has a decidedly different approach to nature and the slow disappearance of the Old South than that of his predecessors. Unlike William Faulkner or the Fugitives, Gautreaux and company are resigned to the brutalizing forces of modernization: Destruction and violence are inevitable, no matter the details. These writers are also more skeptical of the lost world of the premodern South. Though he paints logging and its consequences in the worst of terms, Gautreaux does not romanticize the world that came before it. The camp is slowly ruining the pristine cypress forest surrounding it, but it also produces wood of the highest quality and beauty. It’s hard to say, reading The Clearing, whether the author sees the loss of the forest as a wholly bad thing.
Gautreaux’s story is a good one. He understands, in ways that few contemporary writers do, the ties that bind brothers. Families, of course, are the staple fare of great novels, and other kindred relationshipsmothers and sons, fathers and daughtersare well-trod regions of American literature. But brotherly bonds, in particular those between adult men, have long been overlooked, perhaps because there’s seemingly so little to go on. Grown brothers rarely show each other affection or contempt; the bonds lie deep and hidden, a source of strong and powerful literary material for the writer capable of extracting it.
Randolphyoung, goodhearted, ambitioushas learned about the world largely through his older brother. But Byron has come back from the war a changed man; he shuttles between extreme violence and almost catatonic moments of serenity, caught in the strains of a Caruso aria on his always playing Victrola. One night, Randolph hears, “across the yard, Byron wake howling out of another dreamed bloodletting.” The most powerful parts of the book, in fact, are those in which Randolph tries to understand what has happened to his brother and struggles to bring him around. But as with real brothers, many of the most moving moments between the two siblings are subtle, often implied; it is to Gautreaux’s credit that they never have a sappy sit-down in which emotions are vented and problems resolved. It might have made things clearer to the reader, but it would have rendered the entire relationshipand hence the novelinsincere.
Ultimately, Gautreaux’s vision is a nihilistic one. Though Randolph may understand Byron better by the novel’s end, and Byron may be more willing to open up to his family, he is nowhere closer to being cured of his demons. The workersthose who surviveare no better or worse for their time in the camp; without savings, they will simply repeat the story as loggers somewhere else. And all the violence, all the plots and subplots that drive the novel’s narrative are in the end just so much sound and fury. “The human world was a temporary thing,” Randolph realizes after the camp shuts down and he prepares to leave, “a piece of junk that used up the earth and then was consumed itself by the world it tried to destroy.” He “thought of the cottages and shutters made out of this woods and of the money in his Pennsylvania bank account, but...he could see no worth in any of it.”
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