Kings Of The Earth, the latest from neo-Faulknerian Jon Clinch, is a pretty good novel, but it feels oddly inconsequential. The story trots along for nearly 400 pages, then just comes to an end, as though Clinch simply threw up his hands and said, “That’s enough story for now!” The book was loosely inspired by the murder of William Ward (chronicled in the documentary Brother’s Keeper), and it takes as its center three little-educated brothers who work on a dirty, disgusting old farm in upstate New York. When the eldest brother dies, apparently after being suffocated, the local authorities coerce a confession out of one brother, a confession he obviously does not understand or necessarily agree with. And that’s pretty much it.
Clinch peppers this main narrative with several other disjointed tales that dip back into the 60 years of history the brothers grow through, going all the way back to the Great Depression and ending with the death in 1990. Along the way, Clinch examines the numerous people whose lives intersect with the brothers’, including a kindly neighbor who can’t stick to his own business, the sister who made good and got out, and their dead mother. (Some sections are told from her corpse’s point of view, in the book’s most obvious lift from Clinch’s hero, William Faulkner.)
Clinch so obviously wants this to be the New York version of one of the great Faulkner novels that what he constructs at times seems like a borderline-embarrassing pastiche. The story is told from nearly a dozen viewpoints for no particular reason, and Clinch shifts voice and tense with each new viewpoint, again for no particular reason. One character’s segments are told entirely as one-sided conversations. Another’s are the ramblings of a mentally challenged man. Still another’s might be in present tense, followed by a section that treats the past as long past tense. It’s an odd, distancing style, and it ends up making the whole book feel more like a literary exercise than anything else.
There’s also no good reason for Clinch to split up his narrative the way he does. There’s an endless subplot about the brothers’ nephew selling marijuana that eventually does dovetail with the main storyline, but spends most of the book feeling like the least interesting drug-salesmanship narrative ever. The action in the ’30s and ’50s drops in every so often, but it’s never clear why Clinch shows it to us, since the action in 1990 does more than a good enough job of explaining just who these men were and how they became the men they became.
But at the same time, Kings Of The Earth sneaks up on readers. The ending, though abrupt, is genuinely powerful in places, and Clinch’s descriptions of the endless, dirty existence down on the farm are often evocative. Clinch is also careful to make sure that none of his characters are wholly good or bad, a welcome trait in a book with possible murders and ill-gotten confessions. Still, Kings Of The Earth is a good book that suffers from a serious case of bloat. There’s a lean novel about the cost of existing in a modern era but living in an older one hidden inside of here somewhere. Clinch just needed to get out his hacksaw and find it.