The Clearing is not a book to go to if you're looking for fast-paced action or a driving narrative. It's got a slowly creeping sense of dread, but this will go down best if you're willing to accept its leisurely pace between horrific violences. It grows, slowly, until it reaches a flashover point. And at that point, no one can go back.
Deep in the swamps of Louisiana, where a lumber camp has been erected to process the cypress trees of the area, the older son of a lumber baron is discovered enforcing the law in a rough settlement rife with drinking and gambling. He disappeared after the First World War, leaving his family and future profession behind.
The younger son is sent to run that camp and mill, and, in theory, convince his brother to come home and shape the hell up. He finds a wet and dirty camp, with few amenities and few graces. His wife follows him, first to New Orleans, and then to the little camp of Nimbus. Notably, she does not freak out at the dirt, or the squalor, or the roughness. For that alone, I would thank Tim Gautreaux greatly.
All his female characters are as rich as the male ones, if fewer in supply. Which, in the homosocial surroundings of a lumber camp, is fitting. Ella, the woman who married the damaged Byron, and stays with him through Victrola-and-alcohol binges, is rougher than the family she married into, but has her own reasons for putting up with Byron's scars. Randolph's wife, who follows him into the swamp, discovers she quite likes the life in the camp. She attempts to introduce more families and a church, but there is no sniffing or moralizing.
But it's not a simplistic look at the freedom on the frontier. Life in the camp is hard, and the dangers real, both from the surrounding swamp, and the men who are as mean as the alligators there who don't take kindly to By and Rando trying to keep the workers less drunk and belligerent.
And then there is May, Randolph's housekeeper, who has slept at least once with most of the men in the story, but for reasons entirely her own. The child born from this one character knows is his own, yet he can't say that openly. In the end, a father is declared, and the results are healing and painful both.
I haven't even mentioned the tangles with the Mafia yet. While the bar is run by an Italian not directly connected with the mob, the dealer supplied to the bar reports directly to the major crime boss/rum-runner in the area. The decision to shut down the bar on Sundays angers the boss, and this results in a series of deaths, accidental and deliberate both. Byron and Randolph and their families find themselves in the sights of killer, who was himself irrevocably altered by the same war that destroyed By.
Oh, and I just remembered the other thing I wanted to talk about! The other thing about this book that I haven't seen for a long time in the fiction I've read is the careful and sad consideration of the emotional damage caused by killing other human beings. Byron is the most obvious example of this, of course, having come back from the war haunted by what he did and saw there. But it goes further than that. When another character is forced to kill someone in the bar, in self-defence and to save another man's life, when it's the most justified killing could ever possibly be - it still has an impact. The person who did it is now a killer, now has to walk around with that, and it haunts him. It made me realize how much fiction tosses off killings as easy, particularly if they're justified. This book does not.
I enjoyed the complexity of The Clearing, the small movements towards a disaster. It's a book that takes its sweet time, but ah, the moments that are scattered on the way. It's thoughtful, and detailed. I don't know that I loved it, but I liked it quite a lot.