This is my review of The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux.
Dutiful younger son Randolph Aldridge agrees to work as manager as Nimbus, the mismanaged but potentially profitable sawmill his wealthy father has just purchased in the remoteness of the Louisiana swamps. His perhaps unlikely motivation is to bring back to the fold his elder son Byron who has been located working as a "lawman", or security guard, at the site. He has returned from the First World War in a shell-shocked state that leaves him by turns aggressive and depressed, certain only that he no longer wishes to take over his father's business. Byron's resolve to restrict the opening hours of the local casino-bar embroils him in a bitter feud with the Sicilian mafia boss Buzetti who runs the gambling, and Randolph also becomes involved in the conflict.
After a slow start, the plot gathers pace, veering between violent barroom brawls and minute descriptions of river steamboats, trains and various aspects of sawmill production, all of which Gautreaux must have researched in great deal and seems to find fascinating, although I often felt frustrated by the lack of a diagram to explain his descriptions. The book has something of a Wild West quality, except that the landscape is of course bayou and swamp in periods of muggy heat and rain, rather than arid desert, and intense manual labour replaces rounding up cattle on the plains.
My admiration for Gautreaux's "The Missing", with its often original poetic language and vivid sense of place, led me to seek out this book, which has the same qualities. Beneath the at times wearisome swashbuckling, there is a thought-provoking portrayal of how "a whole forest" of cypress trees is turned into "window frames and water tanks". When Randolph seek out a livery stable to ride twenty miles to his new job, he is advised with brusque humour, "you better get a fat horse that'll float. if you don't break off his legs, you'll have to row him through some low spots". Whereas Randolph comes out of it all with a fat bank account and prosperous life-style, he is honest enough to realise that the mill workers end up with "only the same belongings they'd owned when they signed on". On night-shifts, some men carry pistols and scan "the borders of light for the luminescent eyeballs of alligators" and water moccasins lurk in puddles to bite the unwary by day. When it floods, Randolph can hear "the backs of turtles bumping against the floorboards". Yet, the menace of the natural world is as nothing compared to the threat from the determined criminals who seem immune from justice, since the Sheriff cannot be persuaded to take action against them: "I can't hardly enjoy being famous if I'm worried about some honky-tonk dago burning my house down".
As is often the case, the story carries an essential flaw, since Buzetti could easily have contrived the murder of Byron and Randolph in the first few chapters. Byron often seems too "together" in moments of stress to be truly shell-shocked. His wife Ella is a little too much of a cipher. In fact, in this male-dominated world, the men's characters are developed in much more depth than the women's.
Although I had reservations at first, and found the reading of this quite heavy-going at times, with a distinct need for editing out of some wordy detail, the enclosed world of "the clearing" was certainly well-embedded in my mind, I felt concern for the fate of the main characters, and by the end it seemed worth the effort. I can also imagine it as a film.