Home is the Hunter

Kim Zupan is a carpenter from Missoula, Montana.  He is also a writer, though his work was unknown to me until I picked up his debut novel, The Ploughmen, earlier this year.  It has a remarkably confident and clear voice for a first book, and while it features a few missteps characteristic of a novice author, it is so assured and straightforward in its storytelling that it never hesitates in the way books by less experienced writers often do.

The Ploughmen is a short book, not much more than 250 pages, and its narrative is incredibly simple.  John Gload is a professional killer who, following a lifetime of living off of violence, is finally captured after picking an untrustworthy accomplice.  While awaiting trial for a murder in a Montana county jail, he enters into a curious relationship with Val Millimaki, a lonely deputy with a haunted past and an uncertain future; the sheriff encourages him to talk to Gload as they both wait, insomniac, in the depths of his basement cell, in hopes that Gload will reveal the location of some of his previous victims.  For his part, Gload sees something in Millimaki that leads him to recall incidents from his past that, while they may not be incriminating, are certainly enlightening.

That’s about all there is to the book.  Two men, one young and aimless and the other old and headed in one direction only, sit in a dark subterranean room in a remote Western town and talk.  But it has an emotional power and resonance that belies this simplicity.  The Ploughmen is an intensely male novel.  I do not mean to say it is a particularly masculine book, or one dedicated to machismo; indeed, it finds those characteristics a bit laughable.  Nor do I even mean that it is of the sort that, of late, has been referred to as the ‘difficult man’ genre, though it certainly has some of those qualities. I mean only that, in a book with very few characters, almost all of them are men, and the ones who are not — Millimaki’s wife, spooked by his emotional and physical absence, and Gload’s woman, as sociable as he is isolated.  It is not so much that they are defined by their male partners as it is that they serve as cautionary tales about falling too close into the orbits of dangerous and quiet men.

The Ploughmen could not, strictly speaking, be called a thriller.  It’s barely even a crime novel. It has elements of psychological horror, but there is actually very little violence in the book, and one of the only moments that could be termed shocking is curiously short and abrupt.  There is very little at stake in the relationship between the two men, although, in a stunningly effective misdirection, Zupan leads us to believe that there might be; the only real risk, at least at first, seems to be whether or not an unnamed and unnumbered group of families gain closure on the location of bodies from long-ago killings.  But this doesn’t render events any less meaningful.  On hearing of Gload’s behavior following his first murder (of an elderly woman who caught him stealing from her bedroom, after which he learned he’d “never in my life have to do a regular day of work again”), Millimaki reflects instantly on a tragedy in his own past — one which may have no relevant connection other than coincidence, but which haunts him throughout the book.

Millimaki is a haunted figure, but not a tragic one, merely a misguided one.  The great trauma of his past has no real ties to the killer John Gload, though he searches in vain for one.  He is neither as good a man as he seems nor as bad a man as he is perceived; he is just a man, and never more so than when his marriage ultimately falls apart.  He is unable to see himself through his wife’s eyes, and insists that everything is fixably normal when it is apparent to her that he is the one who’s falling apart.  Gload, too, is as great an inversion of the Bad Man as Millimaki is of the Good Man.  He is no superhuman killing machine like Hannibal Lecter or Anton Chighur; he is, rather, a sort of grudging professional who has found a way to beat the system, although it brings him no real pleasure.  He almost seems to lack ambition at times, and, like Millimaki, has confined himself to the sparsity of his existence even as he is surrounded by the vast and endless scope of the Big Sky Country.

Those who are disinclined to enjoy flowery vocabulary and overly elaborate conjuration of the natural world will not find much to enjoy in The Ploughmen, which features gorgeous descriptions of Montana’s vast mountains, massive skies, sprawling farmland, and variegated plant life.  Others, however, especially those with an appreciation for beautiful prose, will find those elements — which, at times, almost reach Faulknerian levels of brilliance — reaching an almost surreal pitch.  The dialogue can be a bit shaky; going for a sort of intelligent realism, it sometimes seems too trite and at other times too theatrical.  However, the descriptive passages and the sure quality of the plot, suffused as it is with dread even in the book’s lighter sections, more than make up for this.  And it draws its two main characters with simply timeless expertise.

What The Ploughmen is about, even more so than it is about the unending and nameless qualities of the lonely West and the way they change people and draw them out to what can sometimes be an empty death, is friendship.  John Gload is a hard and cruel man who thinks he discovers something like true companionship when it is far too late; Valentine Millimaki is a kind and decent man who turns out to have a much more stony and shattered interior than he will ever let himself admit.  These two men may never quite achieve true friendship, but they begin to count on each other, and that is something of a miracle, even when it doesn’t add up.

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