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The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux
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The Clearing (2003)

by Tim Gautreaux (Author)

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I picked this book up from the library because I had read an interview with Annie Proulx in which she stated that The Clearing was the best novel she’d read in ten years. I thought that was high praise coming from a talented writer such as Proulx, who I respect and whose writing I really enjoy. And, in fact, similarities exist between Gautreaux’s novel and some of Proulx’s work. Both authors raise physical place almost to the level of a living, breathing character through their intricate and vivid descriptions of the rural locations they use as settings. In The Clearing, the wildness and extreme weather of the southern Louisiana cypress swamp permeates every page. I felt the sticky humidity and saw the sun trickling weakly down through the forest canopy as I read, even as the employees of the Nimbus sawmill worked tirelessly to slowly strip the swamp of all its valuable lumber.

Much like two of Proulx’s characters, Quoyle in The Shipping News and Bob Dollar in That Old Ace in the Hole, Randolph Aldridge must also enter a small rural community that is alien to him and find a way to assimilate himself. Through often-painful experience, he learns to communicate with the inhabitants of the ramshackle community that has sprung up around the Nimbus mill. Aldridge comes to Nimbus ostensibly as an agent of his father, a prominent Pennsylvania lumber baron, who has bought the Nimbus mill for one purpose: to try to lure his long-lost son Byron home. Byron, whose psyche was severely damaged during World War I, is working as a constable at Nimbus. He spends his nights breaking up violent fights between desperate mill workers at the camp’s saloon, and his days drinking whiskey while listening to mournful songs on his Victrola.

As Randolph’s emotional investment in the Nimbus community deepens and he struggles in vain to reach his disturbed brother, both he and Byron become inextricably caught up in a deadly feud with the Sicilians who control the camp’s saloon. Gautreaux carefully blends the extremes of the seasons in the swamp into the plot so that time passes by with a natural flow, in keeping with the precise pacing of the story. His cast of unique and fascinating characters quickly lures the reader into the vibrant and desperate life of the strange community of Nimbus. And he reminds us in The Clearing that humanity often reveals both its warmest and its most ruthless traits when existing in the wildest untamed and insulated environments. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
This novel was the first time I encountered Tim Gautreaux. I went on to read all his works. Among my favorite "re-reads". ( )
  wbwilburn5 | Jun 13, 2012 |
So far today (12/23/10) I'm pretty sure I'm missing something in this book. The "Will You Like" meter seemed more than certain that I would love this book. I agreed they made it sound like the next Annie Proulx's next book, but alas its missing something and I can't figure it out. I thought the more I read , the more I'll get it. Eventually it will end or I will end it. I'm getting to the point where I'm ready to just walk away. Maybe I'll keep the book for another try, we'll see.

(12/26/10) So I finished the chapter (pg 69-70) and decided to call it quits for now. I'm not getting the same reaction as the other reviewers and decided for now to set it and try it again later maybe. ( )
  campingmomma | Dec 26, 2010 |
Tim Gautreaux' novel The Clearing is the kind of book that's every reviewer's (and reader's) agony and ecstasy. It is so finely constructed—precise as the miniature gearworks of a pocket watch, multi-layered as a Beethoven symphony—that I risk credibility by overpraising its virtues. After all, who's gonna believe someone who says their reading experience went something like this: quickness of breath, eyes rolling back in head, lashes fluttering erratically, soft moans escaping from lips. You'd think I was eating chocolate or having sex…or both. And so I agonize over my ecstasy when sitting down to write this review.

But you should heed my soft moans of pleasure, dear review-reader, for The Clearing is that rare thing among books: a reading experience that's not only better than chocolate-covered sex, it's superior to most (if not all) of the pleasures offered by its contemporary neighbors on the bookstore's new release table. It is the kind of novel that so completely transports us to another time, another place—the cypress forests of Louisiana in the 1920s—that we emerge on the other side of the story blinking and not quite sure of our surroundings. In short, Gautreaux (Same Place, Same Things) achieves what John Gardner called "the vivid and continuous dream" of fiction.

As I try to make my way down from the stratosphere (bibliosphere?) of ecstasy, I should point out that the brilliance of The Clearing lies mainly in its telling. The story and characters—a man tries to redeem his brother from a swamp of corruption and finds himself getting pulled into the mire as well—will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Steinbeck and Faulkner and countless others who've brought us tales of sibling salvation. In Gautreaux' hands, however, the plot transforms into a lyric, epic experience and we feel as if we're hearing it for the first time.

Randolph Aldridge, the son of a Pittsburgh timber baron, is sent to a remote Louisiana mill town to convince his long-lost older brother Byron, the town's constable, to return to the family up north. Byron, psychologically damaged by World War I, disappeared from view for five years until the family received a telegram from him in Nimbus, Louisiana. Randolph has always idolized the brother who once could do everything well; now, it seems the shattered Byron is just trying to hold himself together for the sake of those around him.

His older brother was well educated, big, and handsome, and in spite of a disposition oscillating between manic elation and mannequin somberness, he'd been destined to take over management of the family's mills and timber. Then he'd gone off to the war, coming back neither elated nor somber but with the haunted expression of a poisoned dog, unable to touch anyone or speak for more than a few seconds without turning slowly to look over his shoulder. Randolph saw on the mantel the sepia photograph of a young man with dark hair laid over to the side, a sharp-eyed fellow who looked as though he had a politician's gift for talking to strangers and putting them at ease. After France, Byron spoke to people with his eyes wide, sometimes vibrating with panic, as if he expected them suddenly to burst into flames.

As Randolph sets off in search of Byron, Gautreaux devotes a lot of pages to describing the journey—by train and steam-powered paddleboat—as if it was one into the heart of darkness. Byron is no Conradian Kurtz—his roughshod violence does less to quell the saloon fights than it does to keep the coffin-maker in business.

When Randolph arrives, he finds his brother is nearly powerless in Nimbus; the mill hands living in "a clearing of a hundred stumpy acres" are controlled by the saloon owners, a family of Sicilians who cruelly extort the workers' wages in gambling and booze. Byron laments, "I thought I was through with the war, but this whole damned world's turned into one."

Randolph plans to remain at the clearing only until the timber is "cut out" of the surrounding forest and he can somehow convince his brother to return to Pittsburgh, but he's soon caught in the bog of violence as well. "Who knows how much trouble this will cause?" one mill worker says after a particularly bloody shootout with the Sicilians. Byron shakes his head and says, "What starts small gets bigger."

The Clearing does indeed get bigger as it goes along, the prose—dense as anything Faulkner ever wrote—swelling and overflowing the page. Gautreaux has given us a reading-by-immersion experience in these pages. In the time it takes to read this novel, and perhaps for many days after, we are fully convinced we're surrounded by humid cypress forests where violence lurks like patient alligators at every step.

Gautreaux uses figurative language to evoke a precise sense of time and place. So, on the first page, we get a sentence like this describing a train engineer: The man looked as though all unnecessary meat had been cooked off of him by the heat of his engine. Gautreaux composes the kind of sentences which roll around on the tongue like all-day jawbreakers. The beauty of his words catches us up short at least once every dozen pages and causes us to slow down, savoring The Clearing bit by bit, phrase by phrase. Later, we come across another description of an aged lawman: The man's face was soft, his features rounded like those of a statue left for centuries out in the rain. Or, this, Randolph's first sight of Nimbus: "The settlement lay before him like an unpainted model of a town made by a boy with a dull pocketknife."

The novel comes to a crescendo with a final chapter that, even during a rereading, has such linguistic and thematic beauty that it brought tears to my eyes in a way I thought only the final notes of "Ode to Joy" ever could. As in the rest of the novel, this elegiac conclusion proves Gautreaux composes words like Beethoven composed notes. ( )
1 vote davidabrams | May 19, 2006 |
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At a flag stop in Louisiana, a big, yellow-haired man named Jules stepped off a day coach at a settlement of twelve houses and a shoebox station.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375414746, Hardcover)

In Tim Gautreaux's first novel, The Next Step in the Dance, the author staked a literary claim to Louisiana bayou country. In his second novel, The Clearing, he colonizes that claim. The atmosphere of the novel is humid and snake-infested, a swamp alive with mosquitoes and hungry alligators, stinkbugs and stench, flooding and freezing alternately. The setting provides a fitting backdrop for the bare subsistence lives of the people who live there.

The time is 1923, the place a family-owned mill, and the people a motley collection made up of a manager from Pennsylvania, his brother the constable, poor white and black loggers, three women, Sicilians, and polyglot Cajuns. Byron, the constable, a golden boy before the war, eldest son and heir apparent to a timber fortune, returned from France a damaged man, no longer interested in family or future. He drifted away from home and lost contact. When the novel begins, he has been found in this Louisiana backwater and his brother, Randolph, is dispatched to manage the family mill until the cypress forest is cleared and to bring Byron home. What happens to them in this hermetically sealed redoubt is a story of intense and forgiving brotherly love, as Randolph struggles to reclaim Byron and to maintain decency against formidable odds. They must deal with the Sicilians who own the gambling, liquor and women and will do anything to hang onto this franchise; the loggers who work and fight in equal part; and each other, not as the boys they were, but as the men they are.

You might learn more about old-time logging than you ever wanted to know, but the story is as compelling as Cold Mountain or All the Pretty Horses and just as well written. --Valerie Ryan

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:55 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Returning from the Great War a changed man, Byron Aldirdge drifts away from his privileged and charmed life to take a job as a constable in a remote Louisiana sawmill, while his younger brother, taking over management of the mill, struggles to understand him, in an atmospheric novel of the family, justice and obligation.… (more)

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