From the unyielding aridity of the Dust Bowl in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to the suffocating cacophony of New Orleans in John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” American literature has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with American landscapes.
Thoughtful evocation of time and place, particularly in a place as geographically varied as the United States, can create a character in its own right. Kim Zupan, a native Montanan, has used the scenery of his state to immersive effect in his debut novel, “The Ploughmen.”
While the novel’s action is concerned with an unlikely friendship struck between an elderly murderer and a young police officer at a county jail, the setting — an unforgiving yet mesmerizing Montana wilderness — lends the story an emotional resonance that would otherwise be lacking.
The book opens with the story of Valentine Millimaki’s discovery of his mother’s suicide on his family’s farm as a young boy, which not only influences his interactions with the people around him later in life, but also establishes the importance of the landscape by contrasting the emotional tragedy of the plot with the evocative language used to bring the Millimakis’ farm to life.
As an adult, the farm of his childhood haunts Millimaki, and it is this sense of nostalgia for a bygone landscape that ultimately entwines his destiny with that of John Gload, a man in his late 70s who is arrested for murder and awaits trial in the county jail where Millimaki works.
As the trial progresses, Millimaki spends more time listening to the older man’s stories — initially in an attempt to glean information about other murders Gload may have committed, but later as part of a genuine platonic affection that neither man has ever experienced.
Mr. Zupan has created a remarkable character in John Gload. Although quickly established as brutal and lawless (much like the environment in which the novel takes place), the careful use of flashbacks allows the author to flesh out his story, giving him a depth that makes his criminal lifestyle sadly understandable, if not forgivable.
As a result, the relationship between Millimaki and Gload feels organic and true. They both yearn for the simplicity of farming that they enjoyed in their youth, and spend their adult lives chasing that sense of peace and home — whether it is through Gload’s stoic farm steading (between murders) with his girlfriend, Francie, or through Millimaki’s searches for missing persons with his hunting dog in the Montana wilderness.
Over time, their relationship intensifies as Millimaki’s marriage begins to disintegrate and Gload faces the end of his life, in both a literal and figurative sense.
Millimaki flounders, suffering from insomnia and confronting his estranged wife at her workplace, while Gload draws strength from the friendship as the story moves toward an unsettling yet satisfactory climax.
“The Ploughmen” is not a perfect book. The women of the story are perfunctory and are only there to reflect the state of mind of the male characters, and the language is ostentatious at times, which can draw the reader out of the story. But it is a thoughtful reflection of the nature of friendship.
Though Millimaki struggles with his relationship with Gload, Gload’s somber insistence on being Millimaki’s friend rings true; in everyday life, friendships do not always feel equal for both parties, and it is this tension that Mr. Zupan deftly brings to life.
The expansive, indifferent and lonely landscapes that populate the book are as vital as the two main characters and elevate Mr Zupan’s work from a story about an unlikely friendship to a solemn exploration of the human soul — and how it is formed by the space that surrounds it.
Wendeline O. Wright is a writer and editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)