Synopses & Reviews
In his critically acclaimed new novel, Tim Gautreaux fashions a classic and unforgettable tale of two brothers struggling in a hostile world.
In a lumber camp in the Louisiana cypress forest, a world of mud and stifling heat where men labor under back-breaking conditions, the Aldridge brothers try to repair a broken bond. Randolph Aldridge is the mills manager, sent by his father—the mill owner—to reform both the damaged mill and his damaged older brother. Byron Aldridge is the mill's lawman, a shell-shocked World War I veteran given to stunned silences and sudden explosions of violence that make him a mystery to Randolph and a danger to himself. Deep in the swamp, in this place of water moccasins, whiskey, and wild card games, these brothers become embroiled in a lethal feud with a powerful gangster. In a tale full of raw emotion as supple as a saw blade, The Clearing is a mesmerizing journey into the trials that define mens souls.
"The power and complexity of The Clearing stem not only from the larger themes of loss, human ruin, and the redemptive force of love, but also from Tim Gautreaux's finely pitched capture of place and its effect on human nature and endeavor. What makes this novel a modern masterpiece is that while Gautreaux never blinks from the story, the reader begins to comprehend the layers upon layers of American fable, myth, and parable contained within the pages. A superb novel, from the very first page." Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
"This dark story, told in the clearest prose, compels you forward like a handcar on a downhill slope, until the final escape. With The Clearing Tim Gautreaux makes himself a clearing on the shelf of books you have to keep. You read it in wonder." Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong
"The Clearing is a fine and exciting novel about place, work, violence, love and loyalty. Tim Gautreaux is a literary writer unafraid to tell a brisk and jolting story that keeps the pages turning." Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain
"A marvelous evocation of time and place merges seamlessly with Gautreaux's powerful and timeless story. He has long been regarded as an important Southern writer; it's time he was recognized as an important writer, period." William Gay, author of I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down
From "one of the best writers to have emerged in the 1990s" (Kirkus Reviews) comes The Clearing, a story of family, of what sustains people through loss, of establishing a community in the deepest wilderness and then defending it.
Reading Group Guide
“Gautreaux, like some Bayou Conrad, manages to combine verbal luxuriance and swift, brutal action to devastating effect.” —The New Yorker
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Clearing, Tim Gautreaux’s powerful story of a mill town steeped in violence in the aftermath of WWI.
1. How can the title The Clearing be interpreted? What does it refer to, literally? What symbolic meanings might it have? Does the novel follow a course from confusion to clarity?
2. As Randolph moves down the river towards Nimbus, he has “the sense that the boat was rocking away from more than just a mud bank, the paddle wheel slapping down the tarry water on a voyage beyond the things he knew” [p. 23]. In what ways is Randolph taken beyond his familiar world? How is his life in Nimbus different from the life he has led in Pennsylvania? What does he discover, about himself, his brother, and life itself, on his journey?
3. Randolph considers the dangerous environment of the mill and wonders if “the many-fanged geography rubbed off on people, made them primal, predatory. Had it changed him?” [p. 256]. Has the uncivilized swampland itself made those who live in it more violent? Has it changed Randolph? How?
4. The Clearing takes place in 1923, in the aftermath of WWI. In what way does the enormous violence unleashed by the war hang over the characters in the novel? How has the war affected Byron?
5. Why is Byron so obsessed with melancholy music? What does this obsession reveal about his character? Why would someone so tough respond so emotionally to music? Lillian, thinking about the cycle of revenge, remarks, “men, they act like they smell” [p. 203]. What does she mean by this? Would the presence of more women and more families have softened, or perhaps prevented, the violence both in the saloon in Nimbus and between Byron and Buzetti?
6. Merville tells Randolph, “You know, I got a friend who’s a priest. He says it’s a sin to kill. I got no problem with that, but what if I don’t kill one, and that one kills two or three? Did I kill that two or three? I can’t figure it out” [pp. 59–60]. In what other instances does The Clearing dramatize the moral dilemma of trying to decide when killing is justified, even necessary, and when it is simply wrong, or sinful? Does the novel, taken as a whole, offer any resolution of this dilemma?
7. Why does Randolph tell Byron that he is Walter’s father? What does this action say about Randolph’s character? Why does he regret it?
8. What effect does Walter’s presence have on Byron? How does being around a child change him?
9. When Byron tells Randolph that “A forest is good for more things than shutters and weatherboard,” Randolph asks, blankly, “Like what?” [p. 244]. Why are Randolph and his father unable to see trees as anything other than a way to make money? How do they typify early twentieth-century entrepreneurs?
10. What does The Clearing suggest about the relations between men and women in early twentieth-century America? What roles do May, Lillian, and Ella play in the novel? In what important ways do they differ from the men?
11. What does the novel suggest about race relations during this period?
12. Randolph thinks that soon phones will change everything, because “phones weren’t just ears and voices but eyes as well” [p. 245]. How do the presence of phones and newspapers affect the outcome of The Clearing?
13. How can the extreme and nearly constant violence in The Clearing be explained? What are its causes and consequences? What is the narrator’s attitude toward that violence?
14. Why does Gautreaux end the novel with the blind horse—who knew “that the human world was a temporary thing, a piece of junk that used up the earth and then was consumed itself by the world it tried to destroy” [p. 303]—trying to follow Randolph and Byron? What does the scene signify? Of what is it evocative?