Synopses & Reviews
Set in the gloriously rugged backwoods of the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, Nina Shengold's gripping debut novel follows three people in search of new lives deep into uncharted terrain of the body and heart.
When rough-hewn loner Earley Ritter picks up a hitchhiker one rainy night, he can't imagine how much it will change his life. A "shake-rat" who salvages cedar stumps left when loggers clearcut, Earley seems to have little in common with Reed Alton, a gifted Berkeley dropout. But when Earley meets Zan, the fiery and mysterious woman Reed has been following, erotic sparks fly in unexpected directions. Thrown together in the splendid isolation of the woods, with passions and tensions mounting, the unlikely trio achieves a fragile balance that like their idyllic patch of forest will be shattered by violence.
At once a page-turning psychological drama and a colorful, wildly comic recreation of a lost time and place, Clearcut explores the boundaries that divide us, and what it takes to cross them.
"Playwright Shengold debuts with a shaggy, steamy '70s mnage trois in a Pacific Northwest logging town. Chainsaw-wielding 'shake-rat' Earley Ritter (he clears and sells stump chips) finds a rare companionship with a young hitchhiker from Berkeley, Reed Alton, despite their differences in background and logging experience. Earley is a big mountain-man loner who lives in a bus parked in the woods, while Reed is a skinny, smart-alecky rich-boy novice pining for his sometime girlfriend, Zan, whom they set off to look for in a tree-planting camp. Zany, shapely Zan comes on to manly Earley and comforts Reed, holding them both in thrall, and pretty soon the three are getting intimate in Earley's hippie bus. During the week, the two men labor side by side at the exhausting work of clearing stumps; joined by their worship of Zan, they become lovers. When an outsider witnesses these hot-house shenanigans, violence erupts and Zan flees to save her own skin, leaving the men to face a tragic fate atop Washington's Mount Olympus. Shengold's characters are richly three-dimensional, and plenty of authentic era detail makes for a ripping read. Agent, Phyllis Wender. (Aug.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A stunning book, one of the best literary novels I have come across in a long time. Shengold's prose is fluent like a river, and her characters are as sharp as knives in this beautiful love story." Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain
"A beautiful, romantic, alive book. Clearcut
is the patchouli and reckless love of the '70s, the rugged beauty and wreckage of the Pacific Northwest forests, woven together with a storyteller's grace and the great grand character of Earley Ritter, with whom every reader will fall in love." Amy Bloom, author of Love Invents Us
Set in the primal splendor of the Pacific Northwest, Shengold's debut novel is a provocative, explicitly sensual, and deeply moving story that evinces both Shengold's unerring eye for comic detail and her surehanded skill at capturing the deepest contours of her characters' emotional lives.
About the Author
Nina Shengold is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and artistic director of the theatre group Actors & Writers. She lives in upstate New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. Earley and Reed meet purely by accident and find Zan at the Cedar Bar Lounge the very same night, although she rarely visits town. Why is the coincidental nature of these early encounters significant? What do these chance meetings establish about the characters and about the particular time and place in which the novel is set?
2. Discuss the initial interplay among the three characters when they meet at the bar [pp. 14—23]. How does Shengold create a sense of tension, as well as attraction, among them?
3. Does one character dominate the encounter at the bar, or does the balance of power shift? What particular exchanges or comments illustrate the role of each character within the group? Do the events at the motel, including Earleys decision to leave, alter or reinforce the pattern established at the bar?
4. What role does Margie Walkonis play in Earleys life? What does her unavailability and lack of conventional attractiveness reveal about him? Why do you think the author decided to have their tryst end in a comical farce [p. 33]? Given their relationship throughout the book, does Margies behavior at the end [pp. 332—34] come as a surprise?
5. Clearcut is a deft evocation of the 1970s and the frictions that developed between different social and economic groups. Is Earley a neutral observer of the clash between the hippie sensibility and the working-class culture that shaped him and defines the people in Forks? Is his bemused, slightly derogatory description of the treeplanting crew fair [p. 43]? To what extent does it stem from his preconceived notions about privileged, upper-class kids? How does it compare to his attitudes toward the lumber industry and the local population [i.e., pp. 75, 271]? Why does learning that Zan is an army brat, “a hippie treeplanter with working-class roots” [p. 45] make a difference to him?
6. How does the mens infatuation with Zan serve as a catalyst for their own relationship? If they had met as they did and simply decided to live and work together, would they have formed the same kind of bond?
7. In musing about Reed and Zan, Earley concludes, “For all of Reeds moony-eyed pining, for all the way Zan threw her body against his and kissed him all over, something between them was not what it should be” [p. 107]. How objective is his point of view? Does he see the situation more clearly than Reed and Zan do? To what extent does each of the characters allow his or her needs and desires to explain-and manipulate-the relationships developing among them?
8. The shower scene [pp. 8—10] is at once funny and prescient. Why is “Earley embarrassed that he felt embarrassed” [p. 9]? How do Earley and Zans reactions to the erotic undercurrent between them differ? Is this difference grounded in their individual psychological makeups, or do social factors also play a part?
9. When the trio ends up in bed together, Earley “blessed Zan for knocking the hurricane lamp over, starting the fire. Fate or accident?” [p. 138]. How would you respond to this question? Does the scene evolve naturally? Is Shengolds detailed, graphic description essential to the plot and character development?
10. What insights does the conversation the following morning provide into each of the three characters [pp.141—143]? Why is Zan more comfortable with what happened than the men? What assumptions does Earley make about what will happen in the future? How do these compare to Reeds reactions and assumptions?
11. As the complications, both sexual and romantic, increase, which character wields the most control? Which one is the most “needy”? Does this change when Earley and Reed become lovers [pp. 251—253]?
12. The idyll comes to an end when the three of them are discovered by Harlan Walkonis [p. 289]. How does this incident bring the various themes of the novel together? Why does it end in violence?
13. The idyll comes to an end when the three of them are discovered by Harlan Walkonis [p. 289]. How does this incident bring the various themes of the novel together? Why does it end in violence?
14. Is Earley responsible in some way for what happens to Reed at the end of the novel? Can you imagine another ending? What purpose does the encounter between Earley and Reeds father serve?
15. What does Clearcut illustrate about the relationship between sexual identity and love and desire? To what extent do the characters break free of the identities they created for themselves or had imposed upon them by society?
16. How does Shengold use the setting to deepen our understanding of the characters? What particular passages illuminate Earleys emotional connection to the rough terrain and the demands it makes upon him? Does his appreciation of nature make him more appealing to the reader? How are Zan and Reed changed by their exposure to the wilderness?
17. Does Nina Shengolds background in the theater affect the way the story unfolds? Does her experience as a playwright and screenwriter influence her style of writing as well?
“A stunning book, one of the best literary novels I have come across in a long time. Shengolds prose is fluent like a river, and her characters are as sharp as knives in this beautiful love story.” -Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Nina Shengolds Clearcut, an engrossing, beautifully written novel about an improbable and surprisingly satisfying love triangle.