This novel begins with a chilling scene from Valentine Millimaki’s childhood. He reads a note written by his mother. It is intended for his father and says simply “Darling, Come alone to the shed”. Valentine makes his way to the shed only to discover that his mother has taken her own life.
Set in Montana, The Ploughmen is concerned with relationships, between the individual and society, between men with women and between men themselves. At the heart of the novel is the rather unusual bond between Valentine Millimaki, a Sheriff’s Deputy and John Gload a killer in his late 70s.
The two men have many similarities: both come from a farming background and long to return to the land of their youth; both have troubled relationships, nothing unusual in the case of Gload by Deputy Millimaki’s marriage is under severe strain. The Deputy Sheriff finds in Gload a sympathetic ear.
This novel could easily have degenerated into a buddy buddy feel good novel, where the two central protagonists empathise and sympathise with one another. Rest assured it doesn’t; while Gload and Millimaki can relate to each other and to a point respect each other it goes no further. Both know their place in the grand scheme of things and both are happy to keep that distance.
Millimaki and Gload both suffer from insomnia and while he has drawn the short straw of night guard duty Millimaki listens while Gload tells of his life and what made him into the cold blooded killer he is today.
At times reading The Ploughmen I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. The language and tone of the novel being somewhat similar, to a point. Where it differs is when Zupan get into the mind of John Gload. It is not that this killer is painted in a sympathetic light it is that he is shown for what he is, a cold blooded killer who goes about his trade without rhyme or reason.
Zupan displays a tremendous mastery of language. Here he describes Millimaki observing a storm,
“He watched the storms roll in from the west, erasing the sun as fully as an eclipse, and then the rain slashed down, ripping at the new leaves on the box elder and lilacs and gouging troughs in the road. Then suddenly the day was brilliant again, even as the rain sluiced from the porch roof in an effulgent cataract.”
Remarkably enough, The Ploughmen is Kim Zupan’s first novel. I say remarkable, because throughout the pace remains the same. It is a slow, intense yet somehow moving novel that maintains the readers interest. Zupan himself comes from Montana and currently works as a carpentry teacher.
Any Cop?: The Ploughmen is a slow burner which gets in under your skin and stays there.