Kings of the Earth
Random House: 396 pp., $26
Murder would seem to be a starkly defined crime. There's the killer, and the victim. The crime and the punishment. But within those relationships exists enough space to weave all manner of morality tales, which is what Jon Clinch has done with subtle brilliance in his novel "Kings of the Earth," which burrows into brotherly love and neighborliness and takes a determinedly unromantic look at rural life.
Clinch — whose itinerant history traverses advertising, folk singing, house painting and teaching — reaches back to his own roots in central New York to fictionalize the true story of presumed fratricide that was explored in the 1992 award-winning documentary "Brother's Keeper." The case centered on the four elderly Ward brothers, who lived in abject poverty on their generations-old dairy farm near Syracuse, N.Y. One of the brothers, William, was discovered dead in 1990. Another brother, Delbert, was acquitted of murder over prosecutorial problems, including doubts the sixth-grade dropout understood the legal machinations enveloping him.
In Clinch's hand, the four real-life Ward brothers become the three fictional Proctor brothers — Vernon, Audie and Creed — who into their senior years still live on the family's ramshackle farmhouse that "smelled like cow manure and dry rot and spoiled food." It's the kind of place that seems to lean as the wind whistles through. The only bits of excess are the whimsical weather vanes Audie hand-carves from wood and sells to urban folk-art connoisseurs who see more in his whittlings than he does.
The brothers have led insular lives from birth. Creed went to war in Korea but otherwise the brothers' world is defined by what they can walk to. Or occasionally reach by tractor. They've relied on each other for everything, building from childhood an interdependency of emotional and corporal need. Nearly inseparable, they share the farm chores, their meals, even the same massive bed in which their parents had slept in the only room in their dilapidated house in which they actually live.
"I don't know how much a person is built to endure," says one character, "but I believe that living under those conditions would be a test of it. Those brothers got whittled away a little at a time."
Clinch tells his story through a mélange of voices and years, flitting from the Proctors' parents and how they came to the isolated farm to the brothers' awkward coming of age, the small circle of outsiders whose lives intersect with the brothers, and Donna, the sister who escaped the gothic lunacy by marrying a sleazy salesman, only to give birth to a son whose foray into drug dealing serves as the secondary plot line.
It is a stark portrayal, in keeping with the sorts of stories, and lives, that Carolyn Chute drew on to explore backwoods Maine in her 1980s novels "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" and "Letourneau's Used Auto Parts."
"Kings of the Earth" begins with Audie, the middle — and most vulnerable — of the three brothers, awakening to find the bed-wetting Vernon dead beside him. "My brother Vernon went on ahead," Audie says. "I woke up and felt for him but the bed was dry and my brother Creed was already up…. The bed was cold but it was dry. My brother Vernon was still in it and he was cold like the bed was since he had gone on."
There's little mystery involved. We learn that Vernon had been wasting away from cancer, but it turns out that he was strangled, too, and suspicion falls quickly on Creed even as Del, a state trooper investigating the death, remains uncertain whether the mercy killing of an aging brother could be considered a crime.
Against that backdrop, Clinch plays out the two generations of Faulknerian dysfunction and rural dystopia, themes he also touched on in his 2007 debut novel, "Finn." That novel was a gripping reimagination of Huck Finn's father, whom Mark Twain had created as a violent drunk and then let him disappear into literary history. Clinch resuscitated Finn as an amorally evil man living in a patchwork shack at river's edge, where he schemes and kills when he's sober enough to function.
The Proctor brothers are the anti-Finns. They don't have an ounce of venality to split among them. Where Finn's character is almost Hobbesian in his desires and acquisitions, the Proctor boys are content to trod their impoverished backcountry, a rewardingly simple existence for three simple minds.
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.
And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:
"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."
The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
Martelle is an Irvine-based writer and critic.