Synopses & Reviews
Following up Finn
, his much-heralded and prize-winning debut whose voice evoked "the mythic styles of his literary predecessors . . . William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Edward P. Jones" (San Francisco Chronicle
), Jon Clinch returns with Kings of the Earth
, a powerful and haunting story of life, death, and family in rural America.
The edge of civilization is closer than we think.
It's as close as a primitive farm on the margins of an upstate New York town, where the three Proctor brothers live together in a kind of crumbling stasis. They linger like creatures from an older, wilder, and far less forgiving world — until one of them dies in his sleep and the other two are suspected of murder.
Told in a chorus of voices that span a generation, Kings of the Earth examines the bonds of family and blood, faith and suspicion, that link not just the brothers but their entire community.
Vernon, the oldest of the Proctors, is reduced by work and illness to a shambling shadow of himself. Feebleminded Audie lingers by his side, needy and unknowable. And Creed, the youngest of the three and the only one to have seen anything of the world (courtesy of the U.S. Army), struggles with impulses and accusations beyond his understanding. We also meet Del Graham, a state trooper torn between his urge to understand the brothers and his desire for justice; Preston Hatch, a kindhearted and resourceful neighbor who's spent his life protecting the three men from themselves; the brothers' only sister, Donna, who managed to cut herself loose from the family but is then drawn back; and a host of other living, breathing characters whose voices emerge to shape this deeply intimate saga of the human condition at its limits.
"In Clinch's multilayered, pastoral second novel (after Finn), a death among three elderly, illiterate brothers living together on an upstate New York farm raises suspicions and accusations in the surrounding community. After their beloved mother, Ruth, dies, Audie, considered mentally 'fragile,' is devastated, but goes on tending to the Carversville farm with his brothers Vernon and Creed. When Vernon, frail at 60 and not under a doctor's care, dies in his bed with evidence of asphyxiation, Creed is interrogated by troopers, along with Audie, the brother closest to Vernon. Family histories and troubles are divulged in short chapters by a cacophony of characters speaking in first person. Secrets and hidden alliances are revealed: Vernon's nephew, Tom, grew and sold marijuana, which the family used medicinally; the brothers endured painful, bloody haircuts administered by their father. Alongside the police troopers' investigation, each player contributes his own personal perspectives and motivations, including allusions to homosexual behavior. Inspired by the Ward brothers (of the 1992 documentary My Brother's Keeper), Clinch explores family dynamics in this quiet storm of a novel that will stun readers with its power. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"To read a book by Jon Clinch is to enter an emotional mineshaft, a place where the darkness is profound and menacing yet lures you on with the promise of untold treasure. Like Finn, Clinch's stunning debut,Kings of the Earth is blunt and brutal yet beautifully told, a classic tale of family kinship twisted askew. It is a fine fable as well, leaving in its wake the resonance of a modern ballad — more Waits than Springsteen — about the fate of America's rural outback." Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and winner of the National Book Award
"Kings of the Earth becomes a story that is not told but lived, a cry from the heart of the heart of the country...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." Robert Goolrick, The Washington Post
"[W]riting so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread." Los Angeles Times
"[H]aunting and sorrowful....Told from the voices of family, friends and law enforcement from the 1930s through the 1990s, Kings of the Earth is a family saga that is not easy to read and even harder to forget." BookReporter.com
"[An] ambitious, troubling drama that offers its own alarming revelations about the human animal, about family, about the wafer-thin surface of civilization." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Kings of the Earth is the product of a truly inspired pairing. By applying Faulkner's pointillism and stream-of-consciousness to the Upstate Gothic, Jon Clinch delivers a rich, involving yarn. As one character says: 'Out here there is no such thing as a main road....Everything winds.'” Stewart O'Nan, author of Last Night at the Lobster
Told in a chorus of voices that spans a generation, Kings of the Earth examines the bonds of family and blood, faith and suspicion, that link not just three brothers but their entire community.
About the Author
Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Jon Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. Teaching and advertising took him south to the suburbs of Philadelphia for many years, and only with the publication of Finn, his first novel, was he able to return to the kind of rural surroundings he'd loved from the start: This time, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He is married to novelist Wendy Clinch, and they have one daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. One definition of what makes a novel says that a main character must go through some important learning process or transformation. Which characters learn or change the most in the course of Kings of the Earth?
What causes those changes?
2. Of all of the Proctor siblings, only Donna is able to break free of the farm. Why do you suppose that is? What is it that makes some children able to lead lives that are very different from those of their siblings?
3. Lester, the Proctor family patriarch, is a hard man who doesn't show much in the way of affection. What effect did he have on the lives of his children?
4. Two of the omniscient narrators are tied to female characters—Ruth, the Proctor matriarch; and her only daughter, Donna. Why do you suppose the author chose to tell their stories this way? What affect did that have on your understanding of or relationship with Ruth and Donna?
5. The other omniscient narrator is tied to Donna’s son, Tom. How does his story intersect with and contrast with that of his mother? His father? His uncles?
6. Kings of the Earth is told out of chronological order. How would it have been different if it had been told conventionally?
7. A book with as many different points of view as Kings of the Earth—and as many different narrative threads and time frames—could be very demanding on the reader. Was it challenging for you? What did the author do to make the story and the various changes in point of view easy to follow?
8. The characters in Kings of the Earth range from extremely sympathetic to quite the opposite. Which characters did you feel the most sympathy and affection for? About which ones did you feel the opposite?
9. Thinking about your feelings for the characters: How did those feelings—like or dislike or whatever—affect your experience of reading their sections of the book?
10. Kings of the Earth contains a variety of tones and moods. Which appealed to you most? Which least? How did the combination of tones and moods affect your reading experience?
11. If you were to choose one character to tell the whole story, which would it be? How would the book be different?
12. Kings of the Earth contains many memorable observations and images.“There’s your war memorial.” “My brother Vernon went on ahead.” “He had his eyes shut tight and his arms out to both sides like wings, and he was flying. Flying on that tractor in the dark. All the way up the road from town.” Which images and phrases stayed with you in particular? Why?