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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
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Not as good as The Missing [See my report], but still a damn fine read. Set in a logging camp in the Louisiana swamps in the prohibition, roaring twenties. Gautreaux is again a master at setting the scene so well that you can almost feel the humidity , smell the sweat and hear the jungle. Any law is of the very rough justice, do it yourself variety. The official law enforcement is corrupt or totally ineffectual with the possible exception of
old sheriff Merville who is a decent man, but old and sick. The supply of alcohol and women to the camp is controlled by the sinister Sicilians . There is racialism and segregation between the not far removed from slavery blacks and the dirt poor whites. Disease is rampant and health and safety unheard of.
Against this background is the story of two brothers from a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist family. One trying to come to terms with the horrors of his service in the Great War by hiding in the deep south ;the other sent down to find and save him from himself. Two men poles apart at this stage in their lives, but linked by a brotherly respect and yes, it is fair to say, love for each other.
The research is thorough, all the characters fully developed, the story fast moving, gripping and always believable.
Tim Gautreaux has quickly become one of my favourite writers. As with The Missing, this is a must read page turner.
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on 6 January 2011
Tim Gautreaux is a new discovery for me and, having just finished reading 'The Clearing' today I feel the same way that I did many years ago when I fist read 'The Shipping News'. Indeed, E. Annie Proulx has written a recommendation on the back cover of my copy.

This feeling is excitement at a new voice and some completely original (to me) writing. The men's world of logging camps in Louisiana in the 1920s doesn't sound the most appealing of backdrops, but meeting Byron, Randolph, Mr Mervin, May, Milo and Galleri, among others, made me wish that I had known them 'in real life'. I felt sad when I reached the end.

Highly recommended as a good read for anyone who has enjoyed E Annie Proulx's writing.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 August 2014
Dutiful younger son Randolph Aldridge agrees to work as manager as Nimbus, the mismanaged but potentially profitable sawmill his wealthy father has just purchased in the remoteness of the Louisiana swamps. His perhaps unlikely motivation is to bring back to the fold his elder son Byron who has been located working as a "lawman", or security guard, at the site. He has returned from the First World War in a shell-shocked state that leaves him by turns aggressive and depressed, certain only that he no longer wishes to take over his father's business. Byron's resolve to restrict the opening hours of the local casino-bar embroils him in a bitter feud with the Sicilian mafia boss Buzetti who runs the gambling, and Randolph also becomes involved in the conflict.

After a slow start, the plot gathers pace, veering between violent barroom brawls and minute descriptions of river steamboats, trains and various aspects of sawmill production, all of which Gautreaux must have researched in great deal and seems to find fascinating, although I often felt frustrated by the lack of a diagram to explain his descriptions. The book has something of a Wild West quality, except that the landscape is of course bayou and swamp in periods of muggy heat and rain, rather than arid desert, and intense manual labour replaces rounding up cattle on the plains.

My admiration for Gautreaux's "The Missing", with its often original poetic language and vivid sense of place, led me to seek out this book, which has the same qualities. Beneath the at times wearisome swashbuckling, there is a thought-provoking portrayal of how "a whole forest" of cypress trees is turned into "window frames and water tanks". When Randolph seek out a livery stable to ride twenty miles to his new job, he is advised with brusque humour, "you better get a fat horse that'll float. if you don't break off his legs, you'll have to row him through some low spots". Whereas Randolph comes out of it all with a fat bank account and prosperous life-style, he is honest enough to realise that the mill workers end up with "only the same belongings they'd owned when they signed on". On night-shifts, some men carry pistols and scan "the borders of light for the luminescent eyeballs of alligators" and water moccasins lurk in puddles to bite the unwary by day. When it floods, Randolph can hear "the backs of turtles bumping against the floorboards". Yet, the menace of the natural world is as nothing compared to the threat from the determined criminals who seem immune from justice, since the Sheriff cannot be persuaded to take action against them: "I can't hardly enjoy being famous if I'm worried about some honky-tonk dago burning my house down".

As is often the case, the story carries an essential flaw, since Buzetti could easily have contrived the murder of Byron and Randolph in the first few chapters. Byron often seems too "together" in moments of stress to be truly shell-shocked. His wife Ella is a little too much of a cipher. In fact, in this male-dominated world, the men's characters are developed in much more depth than the women's.

Although I had reservations at first, and found the reading of this quite heavy-going at times, with a distinct need for editing out of some wordy detail, the enclosed world of "the clearing" was certainly well-embedded in my mind, I felt concern for the fate of the main characters, and by the end it seemed worth the effort. I can also imagine it as a film.
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Tim Gautreaux has produced a finely crafted novel set in the 1920's in one of America's most unique states, Louisiana. Most of the novel's action takes place in a lumber camp in a bayou, not all that far from New Orleans as the crow flies, but decades, if not centuries removed in terms of the so-called civilizing influences. Gautreaux handles a number of themes well: capital and labor; the American North and South; race relations; the violence that lurks at the edges of society, as well as its heart; men without women; ecology, and even "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" long before it received such a label. The numerous characters are realistically portrayed, and the author provides sufficient twists and turns in the plot to ensure the reader readily turns to the next page.

The story commences in 1923, when Jules Blake, acting as a timber scout for Northern interests, finds not only a suitable tract of cypress forest ready to be "harvested" but also the scion of the wealthy Pittsburgh family, who is the acting security guard at the lumber mill. The scion, Byron Aldridge, had been in the First World War, in France, and has had difficulties adjusting to routine civilian life once in returned to America. After the purchase of the tract of land, Byron's younger brother, Randolph, is sent down from Pittsburgh not only to manage the lumber mill, but also to save his brother, and bring him back into the family fold. The cypress trees are used for a variety of purposes, from wainscoting to railroad ties.

Gautreaux vividly describes the very basic life of the camp, primarily of men of a rough-hewed cast. A plethora of mosquitoes, water moccasins and alligators are the fauna. The mill itself is steam powered, and along with the supply boats that are similarly powered, will soon be replaced by diesel, but before their demise, manage to clank along. A central dynamic of the novel is the saloon, run by the Sicilian mafia, where the men "blow off steam," as it were, and often blow their entire weekly wages. The denouement of many a Saturday evening is the razor fight, which Byron tries to break up, sometimes successfully. Thirty have died in the camp as a result. Randolph is primarily concerned about the "board feet" that the mill will produce, and considers "labor" to be an abstract concept that is damaged by the saloon being open on Sunday. His efforts to enhance the "board feet" which are produced places him athwart the Sicilian's own efforts at profit maximization.

Via Merville, a sheriff in his `70's, there are flashbacks to the American Civil War, when marauding bands of soldiers, from both sides, devastated his family's farm. There are also flashbacks to World War I, via both Byron, as well as the Sicilians. Gautreaux is sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy, and certainly in terms of violence, a particular passage involving World War I could rival anything from McCarthy's Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West. Fortunately though, that is often offset with the author's beautiful southern descriptive prose, for example: "He got up and dressed, walking blindly out into the street stumbling around a broad puddle lying like a filthy mirror, the moon imbedded in it like a vandal's rock." And: "...four shotgun houses of raw wood were arranged with the logic of an armload of tossed kindling."

In France, this novel carries the title: "Le Dernier Arbre," (the last tree), and I found that a bit more suitable. After four years, the principals look back on their work, and remark that it will be fully recovered in 1500 years. The author scatters very selective French words sparsely throughout the novel, not very effectively in my opinion. And Bryon's depicted World War I experience was "a bit of a stretch," and seemed to reflect the author's desire to combine and distill the French and American experience during that four year war into one character. Nonetheless, it is a great read: 5-stars.
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on 28 February 2014
Recommended by a friend when on a visit to Mississippi (which included a cypress swamp among many other marvels) I was intoxicated by the richness of the prose and the evocation of a time (1923) when telephone was only just beginning and folk had to fully manage their lives in isolation. Something I knew little about so was glad to learn.
The development of the character of the mill manager, his relationships with his brother, his wife and the folk he lived amongst, employed and was responsible for, was totally absorbing.
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on 2 August 2004
This book is set in a logging camp & sawmill in the Deep South full of atmosphere & interesting characters.The main characters are two sons of the company owner,one following in his father's footsteps the other is the lawman for the camp.The second brother is dealing with demons & memories from the WW1 battlefields in France and not on good terms with his father.
The books follows the relationship between the brothers and the day to day issues of violence & corruption within the poor employees.
I was hooked from the start and found it an excellent read
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on 2 February 2015
This is writing of the highest order. The simmering heat, period detail, finely-drawn memorable characters and explosive action alone would qualify it as Southern noir at its best. But the poetry of each perfectly turned sentence raises it to literature. A wonderful find, and I will read every word the man writes.
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on 2 November 2014
Slow start but gets better and more interesting. Well written with great prose.
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on 8 July 2014
Well written, engaging after a slow start, atmospheric,
and authentic .
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on 5 April 2006
With Jeffrey Lent, William Gay and Kent Haruf jostling for room on the cover, so as to offer blurbs of admiration, you know exactly where Tim Gautreaux's novel is coming from. Set in his native Louisiana just after the First World War, The Clearing is one of those rich southern tales of a community trying to establish itself in the face of lawlessness and harsh unforgiving elements.
As Randolph Aldridge travels south from Pennsylvania by train and boat watching the wilderness unfold and the violence increase, I pictured William Blake making the same kind of journey in Jim Jarmusch's film, Dead Man.
Randolph goes to take charge of a sawmill at the end of the line - a marshland where the workers take it in turns to watch the night for the gleam of hungry alligators' yellow eyes - but is really there to track down his long lost brother, Byron, who, after returning from the Great War, has sought refuge in the wasteland where he deals out rough justice with a spade to the brutes that drink themselves stupid after their toil and sweat in the mill.
Like Gay, Gautreaux is a master of using elemental description to create thick atmosphere: "A hard steady wind kicked up from the south, pushing a tide that crept into the mill yard like pooling blood." "He got up and dressed, walking blindly out into the street, stumbling around a broad puddle lying like a filthy mirror, the moon imbedded in it like a vandal's rock."
The workers' only relief comes from the Sicilian owned saloon with gambling, whores and liquor. Inside is "a burled fog of hand-rolled smoke that stuck in the room like back-lit cotton".
Examining these uneducated men and women who struggle in the inhospitable swamps trying to make sense of life Gautreaux explores the foundations of modern civilisation. The men are "leftovers of the great killing". Not lucky enough for a quick death they remained to endure "the slower mortality of hate, which they would pass on to their children and grand children like crooked teeth and club feet".
Although the story revels in the reality of such a hostile and unsympathetic environment and time, it is a tale of transition. The coming of the "copper wire" means an end to this way of life. "Like a vein, it would soon run head to foot through the body of the world." So that "anyone who witnesses wrongdoing could call for a policeman or a newspaperman. People would know everything, because the phones weren't just ears and voices but eyes as well."
Byron embodies the innocence scarred by the war but forced to finally confront the tragedy and move on. His longing for the unburdened past is wonderfully realised through his wallowing nostalgia in old records.
Randolph is also touched by the force of music. "He pulled the accordion against him like a lover, his fingers wandering for the melody, and the way a hand finds a doorknob in a midnight hallway, he found the song, playing his way into it, hoping the missing words would come and ride the notes against the silence."
Even the landscape, so real you can feel the dirt under your fingernails, is something to be mourned. Randolph, standing in the ruins of the cleared woods, sees a blind horse left behind. "The animal had listened to everything coming apart and knew what was happening, 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. When Randolph understood what the animal knew, a bottomless sadness crawled over him like a winter fog come out of the swamp at night. He thought of the cottages and shutters made out of this woods and of the money in his Pennsylvania bank account, but looking at the horse he could see no worth in any of it."
This is a mesmerising and magical evocation of a past that informs modern America. It is deeply sad and tragic. Pour a whisky, stick on a bluegrass record, and enjoy the tense climax that comes as inevitably as a train on a downhill slope with no brakes.
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