The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan
On the heels of Benjamin Whitmer’s Cry Father, comes another dark look at the modern west with Kim Zupan’s debut, The Ploughmen. The novel meditates on the subjects of death, violence, and evil, finding humanity, but not a silver lining in those dark clouds. Even its main theme of human connection brings up more cold questions than warm answers.
The book features two men on opposite sides of the law. John Gload is a hired killer, practicing his trade for over half a century until an accomplice rats him out. Valentine Millimaki works as a sheriff’s deputy in Central Montana with a marriage failing due to life’s pressures. Both men have a history with death. Gload killed his first man at fourteen. As a boy, Millimaki discovered his mother’s body after she hung herself and it seems the last several missing persons he’s searched for have been found dead.
Valentine becomes John’s guard during the night shift, as the killer awaits trail, asked to pull more information of past murders from him. What develops is a relationship that drives the novel. Millimaki resists calling him a friend, yet realizes he’s the closest thing to a person who understands him. Zupan writes Gload with the right amount of distance from the reader for us to get his charm but never quite trust him, even though we want to. Much of the suspense in the book comes from the effect each man will have on the other.
Zupan uses the Montana winter setting for all it is worth. The harshness and desolation mirrors the lives of these two men. The bareness and lack of population also shows how the cold, wide, empty space can make people on opposite ends simpatico. Like a skilled western film director, the author often allows the landscape to speak for his characters.
There is a belief that friends are the only people you choose to be a part of your life. The Ploughmen questions that thought as well as the nature of friendship itself in an approach both realistic and poetic. I look forward for the next subject Zupan chooses to look square in the eye.
The Ploughmen is currently available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com