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The Clearing

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tim Gautreaux’s adventure-filled story begins when Randolph Aldridge, younger son of a Pittsburgh lumber magnate, arrives in south Louisiana to take over operations at a sawmill recently purchased by the family. There he discovers that the local sheriff is his elder brother Byron, estranged from the family after returning from World War I. In addition to trying to bring his brother back into the family, Randolph works against great odds to clear the swamp of its precious cypress. His efforts are hampered not only by the weather and terrain, but also by the constant climate of violence that permeates the camp and surrounding areas. The men employed at the mill work hard, but quarrel with equal intensity. Card games end up in knife fights, limbs and lives are lost with numbing regularity. Adding to his problems is the presence of Mafia elements that control the local saloon, and when Randolph decides to shut the place down, he launches a cycle of vengeance that rivals any backwoods tale of Hatfields and McCoys. Workers, wives, and even children fall victim to random knifings, shootings, and poisonings. The climax of the violence, a gun battle between Mafia men and a group of workers deputized by the local marshal, is reminiscent of a Wild West shootout.

In the background is the shadow of World War I, which has forever changed Byron’s perspective on humanity. Horrified by the senseless killing he saw there, he seems but a shell of his former self when Randolph first finds him at the camp. His reunion into both his family and more civilized society is a strong minor theme in the novel. Gautreaux is especially good at capturing the atmosphere of the Louisiana swampland and the Prohibition era during which his story is set. He is also adept at revealing the psychological depths of his major characters. Additionally, his descriptions of a host of minor figures, especially the South Louisiana sawyers, fishermen, engineers, and merchants who interact with Randolph and Byron give the novel the strong regional flavor that makes the rather fantastic story both believable and highly readable.