Friday, January 9, 2015

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

Storm on Montana Wheat (Giovanni Gervasi)
Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff's deputy in central Montana, is the officer who's called upon whenever someone goes missing. In the past, he has found people either safe or clinging to life, if barely. But for over a year, he's only found corpses, dead of exposure or suicide or murder. "Valentine Millimaki did not bring back angels," writes novelist Kim Zupan in The Ploughmen.

Millimaki's is assigned to a new detail: the night shift at the jail, where a hardened killer named John Gload is being held awaiting trial. Now the job is coming close to costing him his sanity and his marriage. Millimaki and the murderer forge an uneasy relationship.

Reviewers compare Zupan's prose favorably to Cormack McCarthy, and there is a similarity in the flow and imagery. The writing is self-assured and beautiful, but it lacks the depth and profundity of McCarthy.

Zupan's novel begins with a scene from Millimaki's childhood. He sees a note in his family's kitchen, written by his mother and intended for his father. "Darling — Come alone to the shed," it reads. The young boy takes an apple from the table, walks to the shed, and finds his mother hanging from a noose. Later, Gload will confide in the deputy that he also lost his father at a young age; he was caught in a snowstorm, frozen to death before he could find help.

Both men suffer from insomnia, both have troubled relationships. But there aren't many other similarities between the two. While Millimaki dedicates his life to saving the living, or, when he can't, recovering their bodies, Gload has dedicated his to murder — killing people and selling their belongings. When Gload starts engaging Millimaki in long conversations at night, the killer in his cell and the deputy outside, Millimaki is too enervated to resist.

The Ploughmen is a remarkable novel, beautifully executed and dark as pitch. It's almost hard to believe that it's a debut — Zupan is a carpentry teacher who has previously worked as a fisherman and rodeo rider. He grew up in central Montana, and it's clear he knows the landscape well. His descriptions of the country are stunning: "It was dark among the trees ... the snow lay deep and untrammeled, lit softly blue from the quarter moon and the stars swarming in the cloudless vault above the peaks."

He's equally gifted at considering the uneasy relationship that lies at the novel's core. There's no logical reason that a young straight-laced sheriff's deputy and an elderly killer would confide in each other, develop something approaching a friendship. Unless there is: In a sparse, barely populated part of the country, maybe there aren't many other options. "It's hard to be alone," thinks Millimaki at one point. "In this country, it's just hard to be alone."

The Ploughmen is an intensely Western novel, and it's absolutely beautiful, from its tragic opening scene to its tough, necessary end. Zupan is an unsparing writer, but also a generous, deeply compassionate one, and the relationship between Millimaki and Gload is one of the most troubling in recent American fiction.

From a review by Michael Schaub, for NPR

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