Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
Random House, New York, 2010
Borrowed from the library.
Jon Clinch’s first novel, Finn was one of my “Best Books” in 2007. I wasn’t blogging or writing reviews but I remember it struck me as bold, dealing with the father of American icon Huckleberry Finn, and very well written. I was very excited to learn that Clinch has written a second novel.
Based on a true story, Kings of the Earth is about the Proctor brother living on an antiquated farm in upstate New York. Rooted in the past, the brothers turn away from social contact and change. Then one of them dies and a local policeman suspects murder. The book is made up of brief chapters, told in many different voices, over a period of sixty or so years. These chapters are like the shards of a mirror, reflecting different views of a whole.
The voices are weighted with their own histories and perspectives. The writing is plain-spoken and quite beautiful.
They rounded the one last curve onto that level stretch past my lamp-post and in the light of it I saw Vernon at the wheel as usual, with Creed beside him holding on. They were both looking steady and hard into the night as if they’d been expecting trouble all the way from town and hadn’t seen any of it yet but wouldn’t quit looking for it just in case. Behind them with his feet hooked on a piece of plow chain was Audie, balanced on the back end of that tractor like some kind of trick rider. 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. Preston..page 37.
Mainly they wanted to know about Vernon’s relationships with his brothers. She said his relationships were fine although they weren’t exactly ordinary. They asked what she meant by that and she said her brothers stuck together in a way that most people don’t anymore. A way that most people probably can’t even imagine. Whether it was from their close relations or from the demands of farm life or from something else, something more primitive, she didn’t know. Sometimes she thought they had some kind of group consciousness, if that made any sense. Donna – page 135.
Every character speaks clearly and directly, in a distinct voice. I found the most telling voices to be those of the three brothers Vernon, Audie and Creed. These are match by their mother, Ruth, speaking from the grave. I think this is a true American novel and I think Clinch is a fine author. He respects and trusts his readers, and he honors the story.
“In literature as in life, we have a duty to see that nothing important should ever be lost.” From the afterward.
Clinch based Kings of the Earth on the case of the Ward Brothers, who lived outside a small town in upstate New York. Their lives are documented in a fine film, Brother’s Keeper, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.