Review

The Clearing

by Tim Gautreaux



If you're looking to fell a cypress tree five feet in diameter, or
if you need to incapacitate a man using a shovel, or if you need to
pull half of a nightclub into a river using a steamboat, you'll
find clear, step-by-step instructions in Tim Gautreaux's second
novel, THE CLEARING. Although he certainly doesn't condone such
actions, Gautreaux describes them so evocatively and in such detail
that you almost suspect he is writing from firsthand experience. He
has obviously researched the hell out of this novel, yet, to his
credit, those long hours of study never show through in these
passages. Instead, these darkly riveting descriptions attest to his
storyteller's eye for process, historical verisimilitude, and
specific setting.

It is also to Gautreaux's credit that these acts of brutality
against nature and against humans all have grave costs. The
violence he describes in THE CLEARING, albeit gruesome, is never
gratuitous, but always instructive, and the alternation between
action and consequence propels the plot in a flurry of
suspense.

The story concerns Randolph Aldridge, a Pennsylvania Yankee who
comes to the Nimbus lumber mill in remote Poachum, Louisiana, with
dual purposes: to make the mill profitable again and to persuade
his runaway brother, Byron, to return to the family in Pittsburgh.
The former is easy, since the swampland surrounding Nimbus is rich
with virgin cypress wood, but the latter is difficult unto
impossible.

A veteran of World War I, Byron acts as the mill's constable,
breaking up bar fights and scaring off alligators. But his
propensity for quick, authoritative violence is unsettling. He has
absorbed the horrors of the battlefield and the brutality of the
lawless logging camp, and the moral burden has made him remote and
hardhearted: "Byron's life was a motionless thing. Most people
drifted and reshaped like clouds throughout their lives, pushed
along by poverty or wealth, disaster or luck. Byron was a
self-contained vessel of sorrow that needed to be broken
open."

The novel persistently addresses the peculiar morality of violence
through the actions of both Aldridge brothers. When a brawl erupts
in the mill saloon, Byron stops it by shooting a man dead, claiming
that by doing so he had saved the lives of the others who would
have been killed. "You know, the angel of death is still an angel,"
he tells Randolph coldly. Or, as the parish marshal, a wiry,
white-haired octogenarian named Merville, remarks, "It's a sin to
kill, but what if I don't kill one, and that one kills two or
three? Did I kill that two or three?"

As the Aldridge brothers escalate a bloody feud with a Sicilian
mobster named Buzetti, the question of whether or not violence is
justified if it prevents further violence echoes throughout the
novel like a rifle report. Gautreaux knowingly shades the dilemma
with hard intricacies, suggesting that violence takes a
psychological as well as a physical toll on all those
involved.

Without pushing an ecological or an anti-violence agenda, Gautreaux
clearly equates the killing of human beings with the clearing of
the cypress forest, and he recognizes the murky morality of each
act. In THE CLEARING, many men are killed so that others may lead
productive lives, both for the mill and for society in general.
Likewise, the trees they cut and ship are, despite the barren
landscape they leave behind, an economic necessity, eventually used
to build homes, barns, churches, and businesses across the country
and to provide comfort and shelter. Ultimately, the uncomfortable
implications of this code haunt the novel: "We all guilty, and
everybody got a death sentence," observes Merville.

Gautreaux describes the felling of men and trees with unflinching
precision, but more importantly, he demonstrates by example how to
write an expertly plotted, genuinely engrossing, and acutely
affecting story about the ways in which violence strips the human
heart.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 21, 2011

The Clearing
by Tim Gautreaux

  • Publication Date: May 11, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400030536
  • ISBN-13: 9781400030538