COMPELLING HISTORICAL GRIT LIT: GATORS & SNAKES & SICILIANS, OH MY!
by Tim Gautreaux
On the Book Riot podcast, which I listen to while driving between Florida and Louisiana, they frequently ponder and discuss how readers choose books, as though it’s always a deliberate process. As I try to market my own novel I’m also trying to crack this code though I know from experience that it’s often merely random chance. Such was the case with Tim Gautreux‘s The Clearing. Gautreux has been on my radar for a while, though it’s his book set in New Orleans, The Missing, that several local writers have recommended. Recently, though, I was perusing the stacks at McKeown’s Books & Difficult Music where my friend was sadly clearing her stock for the store’s close when I stumbled on a copy of The Clearing, her only remaining Gautreaux offering. At $1, how could I pass it up? It turned out to be a happy bit of serendipity.
Set in the once-virgin Cypress forests south of New Orleans in the decade after the first World War, The Clearing is a story of the violence men inflict upon one another and the planet upon which they live. It is foremost, though, a family saga of two brothers from Pittsburg whose family has made a small fortune in the lumber business. The older brother, Byron, was funny, handsome, and driven. Adored by his father and admired by the younger Randolph who accepts life in his brother’s shadow, Byron was chosen heir to the family empire; however, when the Great War breaks out Byron goes to Europe to observe and quickly sees enough. His father, though, presses him to join when the U.S. enters the conflict, saying its his patriotic duty as the ‘strong one.’ The dutiful and gregarious Bryon complies and returns a broken and haunted man. Resenting his father’s role in his lost innocence and fractured psyche, Byron disappears into the untamed reaches of the yet-to-be-tamed frontier.
The story begins as Randolph locates Byron living in a mismanaged lumberyard in the swampy, humid Cypress swamps south of New Orleans acting as a heavy-handed marshal who breaks up knife fights in the camp’s only saloon with bullets–often killing the less vital employee. Their father buys the mill and Randolph moves in to turn it profitable and save his brother, who spends his free time drinking and listening to sad records on his Victrola as his wife–unknown to the family–keeps a cautious distance. Set during prohibition, the saloon whose violence is a blight on the camp is run by a Sicilian family with roots that stretch from New Orleans to Chicago. When Randolph decides to close the saloon on Sundays to keep workers from showing up hung over on Monday for their dangerous duties, he sets off a blood feud with the Sicilian mob that escalates until the book’s brutal conclusion.
Some southern ‘grit lit’ leaves me cold because it strains to be esoteric, weird, bleak, and violent but Gautreux hits all these notes with perfect pitch. Nothing in this story feels false or contrived. This is a rich tale of human connection where the violent and foreboding setting becomes a character in itself. A quote on the cover refers to Gautreux as a ‘bayou Conrad’ and I’d second that opinion. The deep Cypress swamp is as foreboding and apt a metaphor for the darkness of the human psyche as the African jungle in The Heart of Darkness. Gautreaux discusses in the introduction how this novel is based on tales he heard as a kid growing up in southern Louisiana, and so the violence–while at times outrageous–feels necessary and true to the story.
Gautreaux’s language also possesses a sharp-edged beauty to match his setting. Although he threw in a clunker at the start that had me wary,
When Byron Aldridge opened his eyes, they were like those of a great horse strangling in a dollar’s worth of fence wire.
(does the price of the wire influence the horse’s panic?!), his metaphors went on to captivate, such as this passage about the grizzled and conflicted marshal in the closest town:
Now and then, in the long nights Merville’s life replayed like a wrongly spliced silent film, an overlong saga that always ended with his sitting in this water-stained office, or sometimes in the empty house two blocks away.
Or this description of a character struggling to consciousness after a possibly fatal gunshot:
[He] rose to wakefullness the way a Louisiana coffin pushes up out of the mud after a week-long rain.
Such direct yet rich language also flows through his character’s via dialogue. The longer Randolph stays in this lawless swamp the deeper he is compromised. When someone in his camp is murdered as an act of retribution and he confronts the marshal, Merville succinctly sums up the new world he’s entered:
Randolph raised his arms and let them slam against his sides. “Is there no law around her at all?”
Merville sniffed. “Yep. We all guilty, and everybody got a death sentence.”
The true beauty of this novel, though, is the way in transports you to a different age. Although not a century removed, it might as well be a different epoch, and Gautreaux does a masterful job of painting with a delicate hint of modern racial and environmental awareness while still staying true to the attitudes of the day, thus immersing you in the alien setting without reservation. The protagonists don’t subscribe to the most vile racial stereotypes of the day, but neither do they hold modern liberal sensibilities that compromise the historical authenticity. Randolph sees the humanity in his mulatto housekeeper and sympathizes with her desire to have a baby with a white man so the child can ‘pass’ while Byron and Merville dispense justice equally to black and white, even at one point shooting a white man in the leg when fighting a black lawyer, explaining to an angry onlooker that the doctor would only treat whites. Still, they’re hardly social crusaders, and thus seem sympathetic without being anachronistic. It’s a delicate dance that is well executed here. In the same way, his heroes reflect at times on how the ancient trees they are clearing will never be seen again and even share a solemn moment once finished while observing the devastation that they wrought, yet despite this nod to modern environmental awareness they are men of their times who see nature as primarily a tool for capital.
Like any great work of literature, The Clearing works on multiple levels addressing themes of violence, humanity, redemption, family, and man’s relationship to the earth, all while transporting readers to a time and place alive now only in the author’s imagination. As entertaining as it is thought-provoking, The Clearing deserves to stand as tall in southern literature as the mighty Cypress trees whose demise it metaphorically invokes.