Jon Clinch (Finn) has turned his eye towards rural life and its oppressiveness. Based on a real life upstate New York family, Clinch unreels the story of the Proctor family over several decades. The present is 1990, but the story moves seamlessly back and forth from 1931 to the present (1990) and back again, touching upon the interceding years. One morning in 1990, the brothers wake up, or at least two of them do. They share the same bed as they always have you see. But on this morning, the eldest, Vernon, does not awake. He’s died in his sleep. Or so it seems. The coroner uncovers some troubling signs, and it appears that Vernon has been murdered. Creed, the younger brother is thrown under suspicion, and is taken in for questioning. The middle brother, Audie, not quite right is left to wonder at all that is happening.
The brothers have a sister, Donna, who had taken the first opportunity to get out and off the farm. She comes home for the burial of Vernon ind the investigation begins to take place in earnest. There is a confession, but the reader is left with suspicions that it is not real and may have been coerced. Preston Hatch, the ever-present neighbor, and protector of the Proctors has his suspicions as well.
Before all this, the brothers had struggled through their lives on a subsistence basis. But once it began to fall apart, it seems inevitable that the family unit – and it is a functiong unit – will no longer be able to hold it together. The state trooper (Del Graham) who does the investigating sums their existence up fairly well:
I don’t know how much a person is built to endure, but I believe that living under those conditions would be a test of it. Those brothers got whittled away a little at a time. Worn out and used up just going from one day to the next. It’s like how a science program on television will say a rock formation has weathered and you don’t even think twice about the meaning of it, until later on you realize that they were talking about actual weather. Rain, wind, some freezing and thawing. One day after another. The ordinary things that wear the world down.
So this then is the story of that slow process of degeneration, of things falling apart, of life wearing the downtrodden down layer by layer, until there is not much left but the rawness of it.The bare nerve of existence.
The story itself is told through several voices, from several points of view. We start with Audie who is the first to discover that something is wrong with his older brother Vernon. Vernon has gone on ahead – which is the way Audie thinks about life and death. Audie’s is a first-person voice, as are all the Proctor males (but not the females) but one which doesn’t give up much. Audie is ‘slow’, spends much of his time doing his chores and whittling pigs and dogs out of wood.
Preston is the next door neighbor, and virtually the sole contact with the outside world for the Proctor boys. Preston, who lives with his wife Margaret, acts as the narrator of the tale. Also a first-person voice, we get most of our hard information from him. Preston moves the narrative along.
Ruth is the mother of the four siblings, and along with Donna both (women) are treated in the third person, as is Tom, her son.. Both, though, have their own chapters. Lester is the domineering and abusive father, and has a little bit of Finn in him – the fictional father of Huckleberry, whom Clinch treated in his earlier novel. All of the chapters are short, most only 2-3 pages. Many are only a few lines on a page. Lots of blank space. This, and the fact that we are drawn along by the tale, make for a rather quick read.
The oddest voice, is that of Donna’s husband, DeAlton. His chapters are told exclusively in dialogue, but one-way, as if we’re hearing only one side of a conversation, like listening to someone talk on the telephone. All these voices make for an interesting mix. The result is narrative that takes on various shades and hues, and keeps the story lively. The secondary plot involves drug dealing by DeAlton and his son Tom. The resolution of this strand is a bit pat, and hurried. The more impressive work is done with his sympathetic handling of the lives of the three brothers, and the neighborliness of their friend and protector Preston.