It doesn't amaze me that some bad books sell a lot of copies; after all, we live in a country in which millions and millions of people can be persuaded that So You Think You Can Dance is entertaining, and that Jennifer Aniston is an attractive woman. What does amaze me is that there are books, great books, that somehow don't find a readership, that don't get the attention they deserve. I just reviewed one of these for the Washington Post. I said a lot of nice things, and then sat back and waited for the sales to skyrocket. It may speak to my skills as a reviewer that they haven't, but I was certainly not alone in piling praise on the book, so I think it must be something else.
The book is Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth, and to miss out on reading it is to miss one of the best and most moving novels of the year. It is beautifully written, it fascinates on every page, and it tells a story that resonates in the mind and in the heart long after the last page has been turned.
Clinch is the author of Finn, published several years ago to great acclaim, and Kings also draws its inspiration from an established source — a real crime that happened in a lonely tiny town in upstate New York — John Gardner country — almost 20 years ago. The story of the Ward brothers, eccentric, semi-literate, filthy and feared, was the subject of the documentary Brother's Keeper, a film that was ultimately more condescending than compassionate. Clinch covers the same story — the death of one of the brothers and the accusation that another had, in fact, strangled him while he slept in the bed they all shared, and turns it into a broad tapestry of the particularly American heart — indomitable, eloquent without being prissy, kind but practical. The story is told in a collage of voices — the voices of the brothers and their sister, their relatives, particularly their drug-dealing nephew, the cops and lawyers and, in especially moving passages, their dead mother and father.
It is, like Philipp Meyer's great American Rust, about moral ambiguities, about how we as a people, whatever our schemes and devious inventions, try to do the right thing, to grow toward goodness as plants seek the light.
Kings of the Earth is the literary equivalent of Springsteen's Nebraska, also largely overlooked when it came out, an album that has come to seem the pinnacle of Springsteen's powers to delineate and illuminate the lives of ordinary people. There is a song on the album about a highway patrolman who is faced with the dilemma of arresting his brother or following him to the Canadian border and letting him go free, a song about love in its purest form, love which seeks to find expression even in the midst of a deeply conflicted moral crisis. "I catch him strayin' like any brother would/ Man turns his back on his family he just ain't no good."
Clinch's book is that song. The language is beautiful but colloquial, the story complex but eminently readable; it raises big questions, and it answers them in a way that shines a light not just on the characters who live in this book, but the men and women who live next door to us, who live, in fact, in our own houses.
And, just to tell you something extra cool: Springsteen's father was Clinch's wife's school-bus driver when she was a little girl.
People use the word dark now to describe books, as though darkness were something to be avoided, as though literature were meant to be empowering and happy all the time. Darkness, for Clinch, for the best literature, is inevitable, but it is only from the American darkness that we find, with courage and compassion, our way into the American light.
Unlike many of its more glitzy competitors this summer, Kings of the Earth will be relevant and read for years to come and, to return the overwhelming kindness shown to me by the readers at Powell's, I can only give this one passionate piece of advice: Read. It. Now.
And, if you don't believe me, ask Oprah. She picked it as one of the 10 best reads for the summer. Oprah is a pretty smart woman, and her reviewer, Taylor Antrim, gets the immense virtues of this stunning novel exactly right. The summer's almost over. Don't let us down.
[Editor's Note: Click here to read an exclusive essay for Powells.com by Jon Clinch.]
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Books mentioned in this post
Robert Goolrick is the author of A Reliable Wife