New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2014. $26.00.

Crime plays a significant role in Kim Zupan’s debut novel, but THE PLOUGHMAN is not a crime novel. It is not a western in the classic sense, for it concerns contemporary Montana, specifically the area around Great Falls, the series of waterfalls that mark the end of the navigable Missouri River. Instead of heroic struggles of hardscrabble farmers and ranchers, THE PLOUGHMEN is an exploration of the roads taken and not taken by two men, of what might have been for both of them.

John Gload is a seventy-seven year old killer who is finally arrested and incarcerated in the Copper County jail. Here, he strikes up the unlikeliest friendship--and it is a friendship--with Deputy Valentine Millimaki. Yes, Millimaki was an altar boy; no, he’s not an altar boy. Neither is he a crude brute, like Voyle Dobek, nor is he an insecure snake like Weldon Wexler. (Zupan nails the social dominating personality too often found in today’s local police forces; scenes involving these secondary characters are short, painful kicks to the reader’s sensibilities, corresponding with depressing ease to today’s headlines of police brutality.) At first glance, a reader expects Millimaki and Gload to be complete opposites. That’s mere surface appearance. Culturally and emotionally, Millimaki and Gload are quite similar--farm boys from dirt poor spreads with emotionally closed fathers; they are orphans and loners, at home on a land they both love and hate. The men deviate in the emotional importance they attach to what they do and what happens to them. Gload eats an apple after his first killing; with dispassion, he discusses his epiphany--

‘Along about two miles later I sat down on a railroad berm to catch my breath. It was an interesting moment. By the time I ate that apple, I didn’t feel a thing about that woman.’ He rolled his eyes up to regard Millimaki, his hands still open on his knees in a sort of offertory pose. ‘Val, I knew right then I’d never in my life have to do a regular day of work again’ (96).

Millimaki has no such dispassion; rather he broods, particularly upon the dead, unable to shake their hold. He’s a walking collection of ghosts, chief among them his mother who committed suicide. Together, Gload and Millimaki, so alike yet so different, equally plagued with insomnia and nightmares, provide a fascinating window on crime and human nature.

Zupan is a native Montanan. It shows in his exploration of the relationships the characters have with the land. (For the record, his descriptions of Montana remind me why I don’t regret leaving West Texas, the other end of the Great Plains.) Gload and Millimaki are content to be alone on the land even if they have no desire to go back to eking a living from the semi-arid northern Plains. They aren’t oppressed by the big sky or the endless horizon. One of Millimaki’s duties is to search for, and hopefully rescue, people lost in that inhospitable land. Too often of late, that has meant finding bodies. There’s no question the land can kill a body if she or he is not paying attention. For the mindful, the imaginative, and the social, the land and its howling partner, the wind, with blizzard and dust storm in alternating turns, kill not the body, but the soul. Isolated living, being at the mercy of the elements, finally breaks and defeats Millimaki’s wife Glenda; it drives her to town, to civilization, to the arms of another man. It makes her feel small. “‘But alone here I’m no more important than a bird or a tree. Whether it’s a nightmare or whether it’s real, what it means is this place is swallowing me up. It’s a part of you, Val, but it’s swallowing me up’” (119). It certainly swallowed up Millimaki’s mother: 

he’d gone systematically from window to window to view her life and saw it reduced to four rectangles framing, whatever direction, intransigent weeds, thirsty fields lashed by wind. A barely discernible camber of earth under a sky that had yielded little but heartbreak (177).

Even Gload’s woman, Francie, can’t take a steady diet of the isolation and periodically goes into town, to a bar, to drink and see people--or more accurately, to see herself in other people (182).

There is considerable power in this debut novel, but it does have its weaknesses. There is virtually no plot. Transitions between scenes aren’t always smooth; sometimes, scenes make the reader wonder what Zupan is trying to advance. The greatest weakness, however, lies in the language employed in the narrative voice. Zupan lards sentences with too much information, making the reader’s eyes wander--

What he didn’t say was that he welcomed the solitary time within the drone of the engine to think, apart from the room he still shared with his sister or the quiet moments at the supper table where his father’s silence broadcast nonetheless a tirade of bone-deep guilt and loneliness and accusation, his eyes from their shadowed hollows radiating a look of grim wonderment at the type of creature sprung from his own loins who could so placidly compose his mother on the floor of a chicken shed and fit slippers on her feet (43).

Furthermore, the Latinate vocabulary--"plenitude of the refulgent day" (22) or “the idiolect of the ICU” (122) or “roseate geometry” (135) or “integuments too frail” (148)--calls such attention to itself that the reader is thrown out of the story. Zupan’s exercise in the use of the thesaurus turns into the reader’s dive for the dictionary. Twice, Zupan employs the verb transubstantiate--”watching the western sky flame and transubstantiate to an ebony velvet” (15) and “the adze scars on the logs transubstantiating into some long-ago wallpaper pattern” (153). It works with the Catholic imagery Zupan weaves into the story; he also refers to blisters having bled like stigmata (221). However, the verb has such a restricted meaning--only one thing transubstantiates and only in the canon of the Mass—that it gives the appearance of being clever for clever's sake. The narrative style is deliberately difficult, such that an inattentive or impatient reader will likely not finish the novel.

While this novel is uneven in its parts, it does hold promise for future work. There is no denying Zupan’s gift for describing Montana, and by extension, the Great Plains. His ear for colloquial speech and dialogue is well tuned. Relationships among people and their environment will always be the at the heart of Zupan’s work. He should, however, take the advice of Elmore Leonard, a master of both the western and the contemporary crime novel--if it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Otherwise, Zupan’ll lose audience, and that would be a shame.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst