By Robert Goolrick
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; C06
KINGS OF THE EARTH
By Jon Clinch
Random House. 393 pp. $26
In the acknowledgments at the end of his fine new novel, "Kings of the Earth," Jon Clinch says, "In literature as in life, we have a duty to see that nothing important should ever be lost." This is the kind of fiction we should be reading. "Kings of the Earth" is eloquent and moving, written with precision and clarity to stave off loss -- the loss of history, of art, of humanity. True feeling seems to be out of fashion in contemporary fiction, and fiction is the poorer for it. Disaffection and irony may be the tenor of the times, but too much of it can leave you feeling estranged and lonely. Then along comes Clinch, and we feel that we are once again safe at home, in the hands of a master.
As he did in his wildly acclaimed first novel, "Finn," a reinvention of Huck's story from the point of view of his bigoted, drunken father, Clinch here takes on a familiar story -- in this case, a real one. But he turns it inside out and gives it new life and meaning.
In 1990, outside a small town in Upstate New York, William Ward, one of four reclusive brothers who lived an antiquarian life on a rundown farm, died in the bed he shared with his brothers in their filthy one-room farmhouse. His brother Delbert was eventually accused of strangling him in his sleep and put on trial for murder. The case pitted big-city lawyers and high-tech criminal pathology against small-town pride and privacy in a riveting way. Delbert was eventually acquitted because his confession had been coerced after hours of intense interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.
The case became the subject of an award-winning 1992 documentary, "Brother's Keeper," which showed how squalid life can become and still miraculously be sustainable. Clinch tells this tale from the shifting viewpoints of all the major characters. These are honest, unsophisticated, uniquely American voices, from the three Proctor brothers -- innocent, feral and shy -- to their neighbors, the arresting officer and the brothers' drug-dealing nephew. Their speech is not lyrical, but it has an honesty that becomes poetic, even Whitmanesque:
"The work Audie loves best, come to life. The clouds clear and he switches off the flashlight and keeps going. The creaking grows louder the nearer he gets. A half a hundred voices raised in the night and crying out. The earth turns and the sun shines somewhere and the temperatures shift and the wind comes up and these things -- these creatures, for what else are they but created -- these creatures cry out in their half a hundred voices."
But it is in the slow accumulation of details that the novel dazzles. Nothing goes unnoticed; nothing is lost. From the whirligig carvings of an illiterate man to a string of frozen fish flopping back to life on a farmhouse floor, to the unexpectedly literate ramblings of a mother dying of cancer, to the glow of a cigarette smoked at night in a hayloft, or the sly observation that part of the price to be paid for being a successful drug dealer is that you always have to drive one mile per hour below the speed limit, Clinch catches it all. Perceptibility is a kind of attentiveness, Baudelaire said, and few writers have paid attention the way Clinch does.
In using the real-life story of these brothers, Clinch is not appropriating; he is using the skeletal structure of the known to build the body of the complex and yearning American character. It is a lonely character, formed by bleak surroundings and poverty and loss and drunkenness. But it is also filled with a kind of decency that is almost holy in its simplicity, its striving to keep what is from ever being lost. In Clinch country, no grave goes unattended, no honor to the living or dead is ever abandoned.
To say that this novel brings others to mind is not to denigrate it. It recalls the finest work of John Gardner, and Bruce Chatwin's "On the Black Hill," another exploration of the bonds between brothers that go unspoken but never unexamined. "Kings of the Earth" becomes a story that is not told but lived, a cry from the heart of the heart of the country, in William Gass's phrase, unsentimental but deeply felt, unschooled but never less than lucid. Never mawkish, Clinch's voice never fails to elucidate and, finally, to forgive, even as it mourns.
Goolrick's most recent novel is "The Reliable Wife."