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Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

Henry Holt & Co., 272 pages, $26

“The Ploughmen” combines old-fashioned noir and new-fashioned storytelling, twisting the story from present to past and back again. It is a Montana poem composed between stark dialogue. It is a novel about crime, but more about compassion.

Young Val Millimaki, a deputy sheriff for rural Copper County, meets his symbiotic mate, John Gload, a seventy-something-year-old lifelong killer and thief, when Gload is finally captured. Trying to mitigate the sadism shown by another deputy, Val often shows sympathy and kindness for the prisoners. While on interminable night shift guarding the prisoners, Val’s act of kindness to Gload is to listen to him in the strange and melancholy hours of the early morning, while Val battles fatigue and Gload battles insomnia. Soon these sessions become a confessional for Val, with Gload obscured by shadows and Val highlighted by sputtering fluorescent lights. Kim Zupan paints a dramatic setting.

These static, yet dynamic, scenes are broken up by scenes of Val performing his other duty: hunting for people missing in the vast rural territory. With Tom, his three-year-old Shepherd, Val searches with increasing despair to find someone still alive after disappearing into the elements. His unlucky streak has been going for a while. Sometimes the people have gotten lost, sometimes they are victims of foul play. All become official photographs in Val’s “dead book.”

No wonder Val’s personal life is disintegrating as well. When his wife leaves him, he is angry, inchoate, and mystified. Why can’t he and his wife simply be happy the way they were in the beginning of their relationship? “The Ploughmen” also depicts Val’s struggles to find his place in the wider world. As Val’s night shift duties continue, he also struggles with a growing insomnia and his personality becomes more fragmented.

The significance of the title, “The Ploughmen”? Val and Gload both come from farming families. For Gload those memories are a comfort. Val has run as fast as he could from his, including the indelible memory of his mother’s suicide in the family barn. Gload’s bodies are buried in the earth. The authorities would love to know where. Val is tasked with finding out. Ploughman, unearth everyone’s secrets. Ploughman, bury them deep.

At one point in the book, within a few pages, I had to look up the meanings of “mackarel snapper,” “pogue,” “innominate,” “bolide,” and “griseous.” In a slyly ironical contrast, Zupan has Val and Gload admitting that neither knows what “turpitude” means. Zupan finds exotic ways of putting words together. He provides an outside, complex rhythm to Val and Gload’s simply-worded give-and-take.

This is Zupan on Val and Gload:

What he’d said was she was gone and that was a different thing entirely. But from his innominate shadows he could read in the young man’s eyes - insomniacal and familiar, so much like those that regarded him in the scarred and untrue polished metal of his cell’s mirror — a need for the comfort bestowed by mutual anguish.

The sheriff to Val, acknowledging the deficiencies of Voyle Dobek, the sadistic deputy:

‘Voyle is just a guy who’s been around too long and somewhere or other took the other course….He is a burdensome man.’

I admire this novel.

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