Thursday, September 9, 2010
Book Review - Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
Jon Clinch’s debut novel, Finn, which painted a dark but lyrical portrait of Huck Finn’s father, was an almost perfect book and one that took a very original look at one of the classics of American literature. Clinch’s second novel, the magnificent Kings of the Earth, borrows as well, but this time the book borrows from the annals of true crime as it focuses on a mysterious death among four (whittled down to three in the book) elderly, hermetic brothers, who live a hardscrabble life on a derelict dairy farm in upstate New York.
In Kings of the Earth, Vernon, Audie, and Creed Proctor, represent the four real life Ward brothers. Their life is one of isolation, destitution, and unimaginable squalor. They tend their small herd of dairy cattle, occasionally ride their ancient tractor into town (they never owned a car), and after a meager and barely life-sustaining dinner, spend their evenings watching television on an old, flickering set. They raise turkeys in an abandoned school bus and rarely, if ever, bathe. They wear their clothes until they fall off their bodies and never launder, well, anything at all. Their small, unheated, ramshackle one-room house smells like “cow manure and dry rot and spoiled food,” and the three brothers carry this smell with them wherever they go.
Despite the fact that Creed, the youngest brother, fought in the Korean War, none of the three know much about life beyond their own isolated pastures nor do they want to. The Proctor brothers seem to have no use for anyone but one another. One morning in 1990, however, only two of the brothers awaken in the bed they all share. Vernon, the eldest, has died during the night, or, as Audie puts it, he “went on ahead.”
Vernon’s death is the point at which Clinch begins his book. The eldest brother, who had long battled difficulty swallowing, attributed his problem to cancer, the disease that killed the brothers’ mother. Audie and Creed seem to agree with Vernon’s self-diagnosis, but the Medical Examiner, however, has other ideas. When he finds petechiae on Vernon’s face and neck, he comes to the conclusion that Vernon has been strangled. Law enforcement descends on the two remaining brothers, eventually zeroing in on one of them as Vernon’s killer.
As other (professional) reviewers have noted, Kings of the Earth is broken into very short chapters and is told from the first person viewpoint of many different characters, even a few long dead (the occasional use of the third person viewpoint enhances the narrative rather than detracts). We hear from the brothers; their closest neighbors, Preston and Margaret, who are sympathetic to the Proctors and their plight; the Proctor parents, Lester and Ruth, the first, an abusive drunk, the second a mentally ill cancer patient; their sister, Donna, who managed to escape the farm through a marriage to a not-so-successful salesman; Donna’s husband and son; and Del, a sympathetic, but suspicious, state trooper. The book’s story is not told in chronological order. It’s present is 1990, though Clinch covers a time span of sixty years, going all the way back to 1930. This zig-zagging back and forth in time works very well, though, and it’s never confusing. In some ways, the structure, and even the voices, will remind many of William Faulkner, in other ways, Cormac McCarthy, though Clinch is still a unique American voice, and in my opinion, a much more engaging writer than McCarthy, though comparisons are always unfair. Clinch also reminds me of the great Irish writer, Edna O’Brien in his bleakness, the isolation that surrounds his characters, and the lyrical way in which he describes the land and expresses the darkest side of life.
Those looking for a murder mystery won’t find it here. Clinch is concerned, not so much with “How did Vernon die?” as he is with the psychological interplay between the brothers, something he mines to the fullest. The bond the Proctor brothers share goes far, far beyond the bond formed by “normal” siblings. The Proctor brothers are inseparable. They’ve relied on one another for everything. They live as a unit rather than three individual beings.
This book is replete with detail, but it’s carefully chosen detail. Nothing is there simply “for the sake of being there.” Every detail moves the story forward or, more often than not, tells us something we need to know about a character in order to understand him better. The following passage will show you what I mean and also serve as an example of how rich and poetic Clinch’s prose is. One reviewer called it “Whitmanesque,” and I would have to agree:
The work Audie loves best, comes to life. The clouds clear and he switches off the flashlight and keeps going. The creaking grows louder the nearer he gets. A half hundred voices raised in the night and crying out. The earth turns and the sun shines somewhere and the temperatures shift and the wind comes up and these things – these creatures, for what else are they but created – these creatures cry out in their half a hundred voices.
In describing the brothers, themselves, Clinch writes that they moved “…like the ghosts of drowned men traversing the ocean floor. Their pale hair and their pale beards wavered in the light wind as on deep currents.”
And the prose in this book is not only poetic and lyrical in the very best sense of both words, it’s vibrant and alive. Clinch really transports us to a desolate farm in upstate New York in the middle of winter. In his skillful hands, the land becomes another character in the book, infusing the lives of the brothers and grounding the book in a reality that’s sadly too much missing from many novels written today. As the brothers ride home one snowless winter day on their ancient tractor, Clinch writes:
The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire.
I don’t know many (any) beginning novelists who can write as vividly and as beautifully as that. It’s Whitmanesque, it’s Chatwinian, it’s perfect.
If I had one quibble with this near-perfect book, it would be the inclusion of a secondary storyline involving Donna’s son, the nephew of the Proctor brothers. To Clinch’s credit, this secondary storyline is very definitely intertwined with the primary storyline of the Proctor brothers and Vernon Proctor’s death; I just didn’t find it as compelling as that of the Proctor brothers and I was always anxious to return to them.
Many writers can tell a compelling story. Many writers can keep us turning the pages. Few writers, however, are genuine artists with words. Jon Clinch is. He’s already produced two great books, and I certainly expect more from him in the future. And if he’s not a candidate for the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, then I don’t know who is. Clinch stands head and shoulders above just about every other American writing today, male or female.
Kings of the Earth is a harrowing, but beautiful and unforgettable book. It explores the bonds of family, the secrets families share, their hopes, their dreams, their eccentricities like no other book I can think of. Kings of the Earth is, quite simply, a modern American masterpiece. Don’t miss it.
Recommended: Definitely and enthusiastically. This is a modern American masterpiece.