Beauty and malevolence in Montana

Review of ‘The Ploughmen’ by Kim Zupan.

 

The Ploughmen
Kim Zupan
272 pages, hardcover:
$26.
Henry Holt, 2014.

Valentine Millimaki has hit a stretch of bad luck as Missoula novelist Kim Zupan’s dark, lyrical debut The Ploughmen opens. Millimaki, who works for the Copper County sheriff’s department in Montana, is skilled at tracking missing people in the wilderness with his trusty German shepherd, searching for hunters, hikers and wandering children before they succumb to hypothermia. He’s known for his high rate of successes, but over the past year, he has been finding only dead bodies. Millimaki is on call whenever anyone goes missing, but as the newest member of the force, he’s also expected to work the jail’s graveyard shift.

This jeopardizes his marriage to a wife he hardly sees, and brings him into the role of a confessor for John Gload, a notorious hit man who has finally been caught.

Gload takes a shine to Millimaki, in part because they both grew up on farms, and begins to regale him with tales of his crimes during the long jailhouse nights. Millimaki’s superiors encourage the conversations, hoping to solve old cases, but even as Millimaki tries to convince himself that he’s only spending time with Gload for information, a twisted friendship blossoms between the two men. As Millimaki’s personal life continues to unravel, and he struggles with unrelenting insomnia, he finds “to his horror that he missed the old man’s company.”

Gload, with his massive hands, calm demeanor and “oddly courtly” manners, fits right into the literary tradition of the charismatic killer. He’s a smooth and steady assassin, like Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh, and can analyze and -manipulate others as easily as Thomas Harris’- Hannibal Lecter.

In The Ploughmen, Zupan, who teaches carpentry at Missoula College, explores the darkest impulses of humanity and sets them alongside the incomparable loveliness of Montana, which he conveys through densely poetic, Faulknerian prose. Millimaki himself marvels at the contrast, wondering, “what in this beautiful country could inspire such evil.”

Death and loneliness permeate the vast Western landscape, but the beauty with which Zupan describes them turns The Ploughmen into a sort of ornate requiem. “Crows and magpies swarmed the humming power lines overhead,” he writes, “awaiting the tender carrion and greeting with caws and croaks the plentitude of the refulgent day.”