The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan is a novel set against the landscape of Montana, involving the relationship between a weathered, old serial killer awaiting trial and the troubled young deputy guarding him overnight (available September 30, 2014).
Copper County, Montana: Sheriff’s Deputy Valentine Millimacki is a man with a talent for finding people. With his dog, Tom, he tracks people who have lost themselves in the Montana wilderness. He understands how people think, how they react. Unfortunately, none of the people he’s found in the last few months have survived the harsh conditions that Millimacki seems born into.
John Gload also understands people. In the past fifty years, Gload has killed and disposed of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people. He’s a hunter. Then one mistake, one lapse of judgment, costs him his freedom and lands him in a Copper County jail cell.
When Millimacki, the low man in the sheriff’s department, pulls the graveyard shift at the jail, he’s tugged into the insomniacal Gload’s center of gravity. As sleep becomes more and more rare between hunting for the missing and his overnight shifts, Millimacki’s marriage begins to collapse. And his odd connection with the most notorious killer in Montana’s history grows stronger.
The Ploughmen is Kim Zupan’s debut novel, and it’s a true head-trip. With beautiful language and strange, fast-paced transitions, he creates an insomniac experience for the reader— it’s like walking through a dream—sometimes a nightmare. Millimacki and the seventy-ish year old Gload spend hours together as Gload goes to trial. During the course of their sleepless-night conversations, they discover they’ve both been shaped by the harshly beautiful Montana landscape, and perhaps they have more darkness in common than they should.
While The Ploughmen has the usual cadre of characters—antagonist, protagonist, supporting characters—it has an extra, ethereal character in the landscape. Zupan’s attention to detail relating the Montana environment is just about flawless. The outside world reflects the inner life of the characters and shapes their behavior. There’s one particularly beautiful description of a parcel of land that held a buffalo jump which captures the history, the beauty, and the violence of this place.
One slanted parcel ran beneath a butte that had been a buffalo jump and the duckfoot plow each year turned up the bones and teeth or an occasional arrowhead or scraping blade three hundred or five hundred or a thousand years old. From the rocky rims above they came thundering, to land broken and bellowing on the rocks below with their eyes rolling white and their tongues red in their red mouths and the women roamed among them with stone clubs and knives laughing in a welter of gore.
Millimacki’s past, like that of Montana, has violence and loss in it. As a child, he was the one to find his mother after she’d hanged herself. Now he finds others who have died when facing the world around them. He’s beginning to lose faith that he’ll ever find anyone alive again.
Gload, however, doesn’t search for life in the coulees or riverbeds. He searches for places to hide the bodies. And he’s good at it. He knows where the rock beds are. He knows where the rivers flow.
Strangely, in spite of his hateful, prejudicial killings, he’s presented as being rather gentleman-like. When he converses with Millimacki, he listens like a grandfather figure. When his new partner-in-murder is rude to a waitress, he takes him to task.
“Jessy,” Sid said. “Hey now, what’s the name of the other one?” The girl set the plates down and looked over her shoulder.
“I’m the only one on today,” she said. She smiled down at him, a pretty girl twenty pounds overweight with gaps in her teeth and sorrel hair in a knot atop her head, the seams and buttons on her uniform restraining the burgeoning excesses of soft flesh at hip and bosom.
Sid shook his head. “No, the other one.” he pointed at her tag, at her breast. She shook her head in confusion. “Hell, your other tittie,” he said. “This here one’s named Jessy, I can see that, but you ain’t named the other one.”
Gload looked up at the girl briefly and then at White. “Shut your mouth,” he said. He spun his plate of eggs and ham around in front of him on the newspaper and began eating and those were the last words spoken between them until they reached Rapid City three and a half hours later.
It’s hard to completely dislike Gload, but it’s equally hard to get behind him—after all, he and Sid White are just coming off of disposing a body. In the end, as a reader, you’re kind of hoping he doesn’t get the gas, but you never want him loose on society again.
In the end, the story is less about the murders and the murderer and more about the relationship between lawman and killer. Like Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, it’s incredibly interesting to watch the interaction of the police officer and the criminal with bars between them. Who is really in charge? Who is manipulating? Is this a real, legitimate, strange friendship?
The Ploughmen is a meticulously crafted novel. Zupan has written a strange, beautiful, and violent story. The loss he presents is truly felt. The relationships are well drawn and incredibly believable—in many ways these characters could be your neighbors. By the time Gload makes his final request of Millimacki, the lines of appropriateness are so blurred it’s hard to know what you want Millimacki to choose.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.