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

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tigerman: A Novel, by Nick Harkaway

"On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican." So begins the novel, Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway that pretty much defies categorization. io9 calls it "existential pulp," comparing it to comic book fiction, but with serious questions about "existence and personhood." The Independent calls the novel, "post-pulp." Harkaway himself says of his novels, "My books are hard to categorise: they have elements of the fantastical, so they often do end up on the science fiction shelves, which is like parking a skidoo among motorbikes: sort of makes sense, but not a perfect fit."

As Jason Sheehan writes for NPR, Tigerman is the story of Sergeant Lester Ferris — a British soldier who has "seen too many wars in too many places," and is now approaching an uneventful retirement babysitting the brevet-consul position of the doomed island of Mancreu. The island, like so much of Harkaway's book, is imaginary.
Due to past ecological insults visited on the island by greedy corporations, unnamed but familiar, Mancreu now occasionally belches clouds of toxic waste, and is thus due to be cleansed any day now by fire and high explosives, courtesy of a panicked international community, fearful that the rest of the world will be somehow 'infected' by the island's inflected disease. One is reminded of global warming, except the world doesn't seem to be paying attention.

As the story unfolds, Mancreu exists in a sort of legal limbo. No one wants it, so no one rules it, and anarchy prevails. Mancreu has become home to the sorts of characters who seek out lawless places. The 'Bay of the Cupped Hands' has filled up with the Black Fleet — a dangerous if motley collection of intelligence posts, gun boats, illicit hospital ships, drug labs, torture centers and money laundries — and the bars with journalists and spies. Lester, because as the sole remaining representative of the U.K. government's former colonial apparatus, he has been ordered very clearly to not care about any of it, turn a blind eye, mark time, and for God's sake, don't give any interviews to the Press.

But the Sergeant isn't the sort of man to watch as dogs are kidnapped, fish are stolen, drugs are stockpiled, and most of all, a street kid is in danger of being orphaned, if he's not already, and thrown to the mercies of the global refugee debacle.

This boy, who Lester sees as possibly the son he never had, sees himself as Robin to Lester's Batman, or any superhero will do. And the boy, who gauges everything by levels of awesome, ultimately convinces Lester, at a certain point, to become a superhero called Tigerman, and to right wrongs, large and small. Lester goes along with it because he loves the boy, although he will not use that word, worries over the boy, indeed, saves the boy as mysterious evil-doers viciously gun down their friend, a barkeep, with his fingers possibly in nefarious doings.

Mancreu is, of course, a microcosm of all man's petty lusts and foibles. Harkaway's prose are especially telling when he writes along these lines. When describing an initial conversation the sergeant has with the former British Consul to Mancreu, for example, the man warns Lester not to answer the phone. "By the time it rings, the situation is fucked up beyond all retrieval anyway." He then compares Mancreu to Iraq, saying, "Should have had a better bloody plan in the first place. Should have said what we said we were doing in Afghanistan and left Iraq alone." Harkaway then has him say, "Conduct oneself with a bit of dignity and don't let the local staff get murdered. Avoid the sexual torture of prisoners, that's always a good one." Yes, indeed that's a good one.

As Sheehan writes, "for all the strangeness that lives in Tigerman, Harkaway never loses his grip." What is strange is necessary and just right and altogether enchanting and awful. The sergeant is always a soldier and too old to play superhero even when he is Tigerman. And you are, of course, pulling for the boy and the sergeant and the sergeant's dream of saving the boy and having a son and when the story ends you can not be disappointed, because it ends as it has to.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Eve at the Gate

I wait
Outside the walls
to wish you
Happy New Year

It's late and cold
and everyone has
Gone into the town
to find warmth

While outside
I wait
Watching to see if you
come through the gate

To find warmth