Kings of the Earth
Random House, 2010
Writing upstate New York is hard. I’m not talking about writing IN upstate New York—that would be as easy or difficult as writing anywhere—but the essence of the place is deceptively hard to pin down. It lies along the same parallel as New England, but there is somehow less of the white church on the village green and more trailers and mosquitos, a Great Lake with no romance of the ocean, Faulkner country without the pleasing cadences and with eight months of winter. Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind as a writer who can conjure up the area and its particulars, and Richard Russo, and Russell Banks—it may be a place you have to grow up in and leave to fictionalize, although that could be a failure of imagination on my part.
And now there is Jon Clinch, who gets it just right: the mixture of harsh and tender that seems to come with the land. Kings of the Earth is the story of the Proctor brothers, Creed, Vernon and Audie, scrabbling away at the family farm in the fictional town of Carversville. (A nod to Raymond? If so, he should be honored.) The book opens with Vernon’s mysterious overnight death in the bed all three share, or as Audie puts it, “My brother Vern went on ahead.” They have spent their lives here, born in the same tiny house which has only grown danker and dirtier since their parents’ deaths; their sister Donna is the only one to escape altogether, into nursing school and marriage to the vaguely shifty DeAlton. Audie has been damaged since birth—as their mother, Ruth, says, “There is always Audie to consider and there always will be. He is like the poor, forever with us.” But the three are all strange, made more so by isolation and hardship and their odd, filthy bachelors’ existence.
This is not just a tale of characters, however, but of community, the ties that bind. The brothers are watched out for—literally—by their neighbor Preston Hatch, a kind, slightly meddlesome but deeply charitable man who has lived up the hill from the Proctor farm since they were all boys. The class divide runs deep here, but Hatch is tactfully, genuinely fond of them despite—or maybe because of—their differences:
Preston Hatch was leaning on the porch rail next to Creed, who chewed and spat into the dirt yard and gave the impression of thought. Preston as short and round as Creed was tall and thin. Preston as pink as Creed was white. The pair of them an apple set against a parsnip, one clean and ruddy and the other dirt-rimmed and root-threaded, arranged for a kind of still life.
When Creed is taken in for questioning about his brother’s death, it is Preston who not only calls a lawyer but goes down the hill in the dark to help Audie with the milking and make sure he’s had dinner. He’s a sweet character, but then they all are. Clinch’s compassion for every one of his players is obvious, and it’s contagious. Donna and DeAlton’s pot-dealing son Tom, who’s exploitative and more than a little sleazy, is never shown to be cruel. Even as he sneaks into their barn to store his stash, he’s always unfailingly polite to his uncles, who think the world of him. And Del Graham, the police captain who gentles Creed into making his mark on a statement about Vern’s death that the man barely understands, is given room to wrestle with his conscience. What Clinch is getting at is the overriding humanity we share, even the strangest among us, and he does it so carefully we barely notice. As the district attorney for the case says of Creed,
For an individual without a lot of endearing personal traits, he was oddly sympathetic. Weirdly sympathetic. People in this area have gotten pretty well removed from the agrarian way of life even though it’s still right at their doorstep, and here came this curious little man—I’ve heard him described as looking like a hermit or Rip Van Winkle or a prophet from the Old Testament—but here he was in the flesh, reminding them of something they had come from but had let themselves forget about. Something they’d put behind themselves without even knowing it. Everybody in this county probably has a little bit of milk from that farm every day, in their cereal or whatever, and here he was to remind them of it.
The Proctors’ tale is told in roundabout fashion. The men, and their family and neighbors, speak in turn, and the time of their telling moves back and forth from the ’30s to 1990, when Vern dies. Clinch handles this movement skillfully, letting each voice offer its own testimony. Rather than being disorienting, the time shifts give us a fully three-dimensional picture of lives lived. The small details accrete steadily and quietly, like dirt ground into crevices, and the result is a fully realized portrait of a small corner of the world. Time is as much a protagonist as any of the others here, and the elements, and how they make us who we are. Del Graham muses:
I don’t know how much a person is built to endure, but I believe that living under those conditions would be a test of it. Those brothers got whittled away a little at a time. Worn out and used up just going from one day to the next. It’s like how a science program on television will say a rock formation has weathered and you don’t even think twice about the meaning of it, until later on you realize that they were talking about actual weather. Rain, wind, some freezing and thawing. One day after another. The ordinary things that wear the world down.
This is a story both dark and redemptive, in the way that spring is synonymous with mud season upstate. There is a lot of dirt in Kings of the Earth, an abundance of odors, rocks and frozen earth and fecundity all existing side by side. Jon Clinch is a wonderful storyteller, with subtle attention to detail and an ear for speech. He makes the region and its odd denizens live, and most importantly he makes them worthy of our respect and affection—an author can’t do better than that, no matter where on earth he’s writing about.