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BOOKS & THE CULTURE All Quiet on the Louisiana Front BY DIANA ANHALT The Clearing By Tim Gautreaux Alfred A. Knopf 305 pages, $24. imbus, Louisiana is a ham. In Tim Gautreaux’s spectacular new novel, The Clearing, Nimbus takes center stage, much like a swaggering vaudeville villain, imposing and magnificent in its fury and rage. \(And that, in spite of stiff competition from a cast overflowing Nimbusliterally a “splendid atmosphere or aura surrounding a person or thing”here, a sly tongue-in-cheek misnomeris a desolate, mosquitoridden, semitropical swamp, the site of a cypress saw mill, where men are consumed along with the timber. In this setting, nature’s vengeance takes on Biblical fury and the surroundings will, to a great extent, determine the outcome. But Nimbus is merely a force of nature and cannot be held responsible for its acts; manto some degreecan. Within five years he strips the landscape of forests that will take 1,500 years to regenerate. \(And yet, in spite of such devastation, he will never entirely subIn attempting to make some sense of the place, a protagonist remembers “the invisible landscape, the moss-haunted trunks rising from a floating carpet of duckweed, the reptile-laced bog that still raised the hair on his neck if he thought about it too much. He wondered if the many-fanged geography rubbed off on people, made them primal, predatory” It does. But Nimbus is also home to men like Byron Aldridge, “made primal, predatory” years earlier, in this case, by the ruthless savagery of World War I. Affable, handsome, and destined for greatness, he had been sent to France as a battlefield observer for a munitions manufacturer and subsequently provided intelligence to U.S. troops and served on the front.The experience unhinged him. He becomes, in the words of one of the characters, “one of them with the spiders in his head.” Shortly after his return to the United States, he disappears. He flees his home in Pennsylvania, his family’s logging empire, and his father, a well-meaning but remote industrialist who operates from the wings, pulling the strings and making things happen, like some omnipotent Greek deity. After a five-year search, his father learns of his son’s whereabouts. He purchases the Louisiana sawmill where Byron is working as a police constable, and sends his younger son, Randolpha well-intentioned, unworldly young man, who dotes on his older brotherto manage the mill, assess Byron’s mental state, and induce him to return to the family fold. Byron isn’t the only war-shattered individual to have found sanctuary in the vicinity of Nimbus. A fistful of hardened criminalsSicilian Mafiosi from Chicagoso sanguinary their actions are credible only in light of their having survived the horrors of warcontrol the booze, gambling, and prostitution on a piece of property smack in the middle of the saw mill. Here, men squander their wages, vent their rage, and kill each other over a card game or a woman. Gautreaux creates dozens of tough, highly credible characters by highlight ing those individual quirks which set people aparta man’s reaction to a tear-jerking ballad, the way he stomps his boots, scratches his ear or pats a child’s head. Such forceful characters and a riveting plot go a long way in making this a memorable read. But The Clearing is more than that. It is an extraordinary depiction of the human condition. Gautreaux probes beneath the surface, addressing universal moral concerns. In a June 1991 Atlantic Monthly interview he claimed: “If a story does not deal with a moral question, I don’t think it’s much of a story.” As in his earlier workshis prizewinning short stories, his collections, Same Place, Same Things and Welding With Children, and a novel, The Next Step in the DanceGautreaux concentrates on the fundamental issues that challenge humanity: man’s assault on his environment, the effect of corruption on society, industrialization and the subsequent dehumanization of the labor force, racial strife, and the consequences of modernization. In some ways he resembles the naturalistic writers who preceded him James T. Farrell, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London. All, to one extent or another, emphasized the effect of impersonal forceseconomic, social, biological on the individual and attempted to reproduce real life situations, warts and all. Like them, Gautreaux is also a stickler for detail, no matter how sordid: Byron pulled his pistol and fired a shot through the floor, calling out for 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10110103