The Ploughmen, now available through publisher Henry Holt, is the perfect book to read this autumn. Kim Zupan weaves a story that is equal parts discomfiting and beautiful, desolate and richly imagined. Set in the wilds of rural Montana, The Ploughmen follows the complicated relationship between a rookie deputy and the serial killer caged in his jailhouse. The novel explores the essence of friendship and morality.
Valentine Millimaki is the cop who searches for those lost in the unyielding wilderness, and lately all he’s been able to find are the dead. It has been too long since he’s rescued someone; the string of those he was unable to help stretches out behind him, following his footsteps. When he’s assigned to the night shift at the jail, he’s already haunted—both by his work and his failing marriage.
John Gload has been killing for around sixty years, and it is only at the age of seventy-seven that he faces lasting incarceration. As he reveals to Millimaki, it was after the first murder he committed as a young boy that he realized he would never have to “do a regular day of work again.” Instead, Gload spent his life doing what he excelled at—murder and making money off it. And yet, he is not a wholly unlikable character; he speaks earnestly and honestly, and his love for his girlfriend Francie and their homestead is evident, though corrupted by his own moral code.
The pasts of Millimaki and Gload, though opposite sides of a coin, are similar: both were farmer’s sons, used to ploughing the harsh fields of Montana; both lost parents at an early age. The novel opens with a scene from Millimaki’s childhood on the farm, subsisting from one season to the next. One day he reads a note intended for his father, saying “Darling—Come alone to the shed.” There he finds his mother hanging from the rafters, the first of the dead he is unable to save. Later, John Gload reveals that his father froze to death while trying to find them shelter from a snowstorm. “We’re just a couple of hard-luck orphans, ain’t we, Valentine?” Gload says, cementing their bond in his mind.
While Millimaki initially only spoke to Gload under the pretense of gleaning more information about past murders, he soon struggles with the development of their friendship. Gload is steadfast in his affection, sharing advice and stories from his past as one would speak to a dear friend over coffee. The intimacy of their relationship is unsettlingly belied by the metal bars between them and the unremorseful manner in which Gload retells his gruesome deeds. In the end, the two become intertwined, both affecting the other in a profound way.
The treatment and development of the pair’s relationship is skillfully done. However, what makes this novel stand out is its treatment of setting. It is obvious Zupan knows the place he’s writing about when he describes landscapes that are both beautiful and macabre in passages such as: “The hills’ incipient green, so faint and tenuous it may have been merely a trick of the eye after months of white on gray, was utterly erased by the storm. Songbirds gathered stunned and mute in the cottonwoods along the creek and on the right-of-way fence wires and the roadway was smeared and littered with gore, deer come to feed on weeds exposed by the county’s plows grotesquely disassembled by tractor trailers careening through the dark toward Billings and Cheyenne.” The stark brutality and surprising loveliness of the Montana landscape grounds the book and provides an emotional resonance to the plot that elevates the narrative.
There are a few aspects that could be improved in the novel. The women, including Millimaki’s wife and Gload’s girlfriend, are largely vehicles for the men’s development and should have been developed with the same care as the lead characters. The language, while oftentimes stunning, is occasionally cumbersome and difficult to parse.
Still, it is a standout debut novel that leaves a lasting chill. It is an excellent American Western in the most traditional sense, but its nuanced take on the traditional Western values of good and evil give it a decidedly modern flavor. It also fits into the literary world as a disturbing crime story, or a complicated character study. Highly recommended to read on a cold night with the wind howling outside, The Ploughmen is an example of the Western done right.
Publisher: Henry Holt
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood