Set in northern Montana, the novel presents a powerful and implacable landscape, all dry soil and fractured river breaks. It’s important to Zupan, a native Montanan, that his besieged characters occupy a worthy setting. Valentine Millimaki, a Copper County deputy, is a skilled tracker of missing persons who always seems to arrive too late to save his quarry. He is too much in the company of the dead. John Gload, a tidy and brutal killer, is so impeccable in his murderous habits that he has eluded capture for decades. In their world, black pines stand “cowled and sinister as executioners.” The wind sweeps down from “bleak and frozen crags” carrying “the appetite of wolf and bear.” The bitter seasons Millimaki and Gload have weathered, and the lessons they have drawn from childhoods on pitiless farms that barely “raise up anything at all,” become both the backdrop of the novel and the key to its resolution.
When the book opens, Millimaki is a boy arriving home from the Catholic school where he has been pondering the corporal works of mercy. During the course of the novel, Millimaki will perform many such acts — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering succor to the imprisoned. Compassion is his signal strength. But on this afternoon he faces the fact of his mother’s suicide, a hanging that occurs while his inattentive father rides a tractor across the family’s hapless fields. Too late to save his mother, he brands himself liable for her death. It is this enormous, and vulnerable, sense of responsibility that leads him toward an unlikely adult relationship with the pathological John Gload.
Gload is a horror. Though unpretentious and ruefully genteel, he has a genius for exploiting weakness. He lures and seduces and kills efficiently, obliterating all traces of his victims’ identity with mutilation when he must. Incarcerated and facing a trial he does not seem to fear, Gload has little use for Millimaki, or anyone, until he witnesses the deputy’s kindness. From the moment Gload — who occupies a dank, isolated basement cell like some high plains Hannibal Lecter — sniffs the scent of Millimaki’s merciful nature, he sets out to understand it and use it to his advantage.
Zupan is also a carpenter, and he writes with the precision of his trade. He does not shy away from themes of innocence or guilt. Neither does he exploit those themes in the service of melodrama. Riffing on the rhythms of Cormac McCarthy, he composes vivid scenes of tenderness and manipulation between the two men. Millimaki and Gload develop a jailhouse relationship that is convincing, and harrowing. In the end, that relationship liberates them from the many ghosts who keep them awake at night — though not in ways a reader might expect.
Zupan is committed to shrewd storytelling. Who can resist the persuasions of a gifted killer? What happens when a decent man befriends an indecent one? How long can evil remain locked away? The book features plenty of suspense. What it offers in addition are Zupan’s considerable skills with description and mood. Though Zupan sometimes over-laminates a sentence, “The Ploughmen” is a dark and imaginative debut.