The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan: A strange kind of friendship

Cover imageI’d picked out Kim Zupan’s debut in my August paperback preview as a novel somewhat outside my usual literary territory but whose blurb made it sound worth investigating. It arrived jacketed a little like a Kent Haruf novel but what really sealed the deal was a puff from Mark Spragg whose An Unfinished Life and The Fruit of Stone I’d rate alongside Haruf’s work. Set in similar American smalltown territory to Haruf’s wonderful Holt novels, The Ploughmen‘s not in that league but it is a compelling novel, well worth reading.

It opens dramatically with a young Valentine Millimaki finding his mother hanged in the family barn, led there by a note meant for his father. Fast forward a few years and Millimaki is a cop, frequently sent out to track down hikers and skiers lost in the Montana wilds. His wife spends many hours in their isolated home, lonely and anxious, waiting for her husband to come home. Meanwhile John Gload and his partner are engaged in cleaning up after a murder, dismembering and disposing of the latest in a long line of corpses after robbing the victim. Gload is exasperated by the stupidity of young Sidney White. Before long, he lands up on trial courtesy of White’s evidence given after he’s fingered for the rape and murder of a young woman. Millimaki draws the short straw and ends up on the graveyard shift at the local jail, straining his marriage still further, where Gload takes a shine to him. Spotting an opportunity, the sheriff asks Millimaki to extract as much information as he can from Gload. As the month wears on, a strangely intimate bond grows between these two disparate men who share more than you might expect.

I very nearly gave The Ploughman up early on: it’s a tad overwritten for me – ‘a phallic tower with a dome of hammered copper which at that hour beaconed its russet affluence to the working-class homes on the river below’ gives you an idea. What kept me going was Zupan’s characterisation which makes the strange bond between Millimaki and Gload both gripping and believable. Both men’s backstories are skilfully delivered, filling in the groundwork convincingly for what one man will call friendship while the other does his duty, drawn into a discomfiting intimacy. While Gload’s crimes are monstrous, Zupan succeeds in humanising him so that Millimaki’s empathy seems credible making the novel’s ending entirely fitting. Not Haruf, then, but what was I thinking of? Definitely worth keeping an eye out for a second Zupan novel, and well done Picador for publishing this one straight into paperback.

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