It's 1923, and Byron Aldridge, ex-doughboy and scion of a Pennsylvania logging family, has gone awol, at least from the conventions of social intercourse expected by those of his background. But when his worried relatives find that he's taken a post as the constable in an isolated Louisiana logging camp (misery loves company law, presumably), they not only buy the business lock, stock and sawmill, but install his younger brother Randolph as mill manager, to keep an eye on his sibling and to persuade him back to their bosom.
Nimbus Camp might be distant, but it's anything but peaceful. Byron spends his days clouting drunks with his trusty shovel and confronting the local Mafia, tied up with their usual bootlegging, gambling and pimping businesses which give the loggers opportunity to squander their pitiful wages. (New Orleans was La Cosa Nostra's original North American base). But Randolph, though puzzled at his brother's behaviour (he's much given to listening to gloomy 78s on his wind-up gramophone, while his long-suffering wife rolls her eyes), finds himself seduced by the sticky gloom of the clearing in the swamp, not to mention his ambitious housekeeper, condemned by Southern racism to a life at the bottom of the pile.
Gautreaux, a native of the region, captures the fetid atmosphere of a frontier society poised to join the modern world with great skill, each sentence polished to perfection, sometimes at the expense of narrative drive. But although his descriptions might veer towards lurid, there's something undeniably evocative about the account of a sharecropper's death "behind a mortgaged plow... dragged by the spooked mule to the edge of the field, even in death working to the end of the row". So passed the father of ancient lawman Merville, the plot's crucial link between the old and the new with his fascination with the telephone's potential and perpetual awareness of man's capacity for evil, hard learnt at the hands of Civil War freebooters.
For all the florid touches, The Clearing really does steam along in its neatly contained world of pain and destruction for profit. Byron doesn't compare the annihilation wrought on old growth forest by the withdrawing timber operation to what he saw on the Western front for nothing, and Gautreaux never makes the mistake of viewing a brutal past through rose-tinted glasses. At the book's conclusion, when the survivors head towards the Pacific North West to start the cycle of profitable destructiveness once more, you're reminded that America was literally built on the hard labour of workers who simply tore up one virgin area and rebuilt it elsewhere. It's an ongoing process. The Clearing, with its cast of lawmen constrained from working against entrenched interests and hopeless voices silenced by their struggle for survival, could as easily be set in today's Amazon basin.
But this describes a distinctly American battle against nature. For all his paternalism, Randolph forever has an eye on the bottom line, while his brother, though brutalised by his war experiences, at least has an escape route ready should he choose. Pierre Mangan's Provence-set The Murdered House, an underrated slab of French Gothic and another account of a war-damaged loner, has made it to the screen, and it's hard to imagine Hollywood resisting this plot-heavy, symbolic tale of those cut down in their prime.Reuse content