The Clearing
Tim Gautreaux
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The Clearing

Tim Gautreaux
320 pages
June 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Knee-deep in snakes and alligators, the clearing at Nimbus Mill is so buried in the swamps of Louisiana that the damp permeates everything like a second glistening skin. When Noah Aldridge purchases Nimbus in 1923, he sends his son Randolph in search of an older brother, Byron. The mill clearing is surreal, like a step into the primitive past, where brutal, backbreaking days are followed by raucous nights of drunken reveling at the only saloon. After days of unremitting labor, drunken brawls are as commonplace as the hangovers the morning after. Mill life is harsh and dangerous; this is a place where death comes sudden and easily.

Randolph travels to the mill as the new manager, hoping to reconnect with Byron, now the local constable with a reputation for unpredictability. Since returning from World War II, Byron has been AWOL from his own life, haunted by all that he witnessed, unable to find peace in this godforsaken place or any other. In a vain attempt to soothe his wounded psyche, Byron continuously plays maudlin recordings on an old victrola, searching for emotional connections. The eerie, intense surroundings of the mill are a far cry from the elite lifestyle the men enjoyed as youths in Pennsylvania.

By the time Randolph arrives in the heart of the clearing, Byron is involved in a feud with a local Sicilian bootlegger. During a late night altercation at the saloon, Randolph shoots a man in self-defense and discovers some measure of empathy with his older brother's anguish. There is a series of confrontations on both sides and the bad blood between Byron and the Sicilians is palpable, along with the promise of dire consequences. Threat trembles in the moist air after the Sicilians, adept at stealth and intimidation, send an assassin under the cover of night to exact revenge.

Gauteaux's writing is filled with the primal energy of desperate men in extreme conditions. His three-dimensional characters come to life on these pages where sound is stifled by the dampness that weights the air, nightly obscuring a desolate moon. Each new day rises with effort, struggling for breath, as workers slog through mud and rain from one place to another, surrounded by timber, snakes and gators. Lost in the land that time forgot, the clearing is a place where men struggle to survive their own vices. In the process, this dank, Gothic tableau resists any attempt at redemption, waiting patiently to reclaim its primeval existence.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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