As I sit here, it just so happens – conveniently – that a raging thunderstorm is passing over the city. If there is any review that deserves to be written while surrounded by dark and gloomy weather, it is The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan. The novel opens with one of the darkest scenes I’ve read in recent memory. It’s simple, stark, and evocative. A young boy returns home from school to find a note on the table from his mother, it says “Darling – Come alone to the shed”. The boy does as he is told, only to find that his mother, hanging.
Fast forward to present day, the young boy – Valentine Millimaki – is now a deputy. He works the night shift at the local jail and he’s the designated officer to search for lost hikers during the day. Between his unforgiving schedule and the unforgiving Montana landscape he inhabits, Val’s life is cold and lonely. When Gload, an old, but lethal serial killer is captured, he is held in the jail Millimaki works at. The two vastly different individuals form an uneasy bond – they’re both troubled men who’ve struggled with some of the same issues – insomnia, untimely parental death, and relationships.
“He felt the night’s tension begin to veer toward a novel savagery. Unconsciously he dug one hand into the seat as if he might hold them in place against the quickening current. His long exhalation fogged the window glass.”
Zupan’s beautiful debut novel is so well-written that I can’t help but recommend it to everyone. Whether or not stories featuring criminals, killers, deputies, and desolation is your typical choice, the author’s command of language is breathtaking, if a tad archaic – but it works in this case. This novel is, quite honestly (and I’m not fond of the term, but it applies nonetheless), well crafted, while deftly balancing the grim and the violent with the humane. Both Val and Gload are well-developed characters with plenty of depth and they play off of each other in a variety of capacities – deputy/criminal, father/son, and friends.
“I don’t want to talk about that on account of I don’t want you to be thinking about it for the rest of your life. I wouldn’t do that to you Val, I got a lot of feelings for you.”
“Friendship, then, because you didn’t kill me.”
His tired eyes stared into Millimaki’s. “It does not, Deputy, get any truer than that.”
This is a novel that I can’t help but feel will fly under the radar, but I hope it gets the attention it deserves. It’s not the story of anything in particular, instead it is the story of how life happens and how the lives of individuals intersect in such a way as to bind them together. It’s also the story of place, in this case it’s the desolate, lonely Montana countryside. It has the feel of a modern western with the gloom and grit of Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy. I’d highly, highly recommend this one for fans of literary fiction.
Pair this with a sandwich. In this case, it is of my choosing, so a Turkey, Cheddar, and Green Apple Sandwich should do it.
“”You go on and eat your lunch.”
Valentine Millimaki sat for a long moment and then stood and turned. But he heard Gload behind him hiss, “I would put him in a hole in the ground, Val. I would put his under and you nor your dog nor anyone would find his ass until his bones were as white as Custer’s.”
The voice was one he had not heard from Gload before, had not heard in his life, and he stared into the cell as if he might see this other animal that had taken possession of that place, come from some other more calamitous dark. As suddenly as it was gone.
“Go on and have your sandwich now,” Gload said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.””
*I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.*