An old man who has murdered scores of victims and a young deputy, haunted by his mother’s suicide and his wife’s betrayal, spend night after night in the Copper County jail. Bound by mutual insomnia, they pass words through the bars.
It’s not quite friendship because, as Valentine Millimaki notes, “I don’t know if you can be friends with somebody you think might cut your throat if the opportunity arose.”
But John Gload, with a predator’s keen nose for weakness, builds a bond with his jailer. “I don’t know that I have a thing you’d call a soul, Val, but I recnize it in other people. You have such a thing. I seen it smudged across your face the very first time I seen you.”
Kim Zupan’s stark, elegant debut evokes a raw, implacable landscape and surprising empathy, both for the young man, who roams the hills and river breaks looking for dead bodies, and for the seasoned killer.
“He tried to reconcile the avuncular old man tendering comfort and counsel from his dark cage with the creature who could placidly dismember a fellow human being … The distance from reason to rage is short, a frontier as thin as parchment and as frail, restraining the monster. It was there in everyone, he thought. It was there in himself.”
His wife sees Valentine as a stranger, consumed by ghosts, and blames him for leaving her alone in their cabin in the Little Belt Mountains. “But alone here I’m no more important than a bird or a tree … this place is swallowing me up,” she tells him.
Zupan has crafted an intimate, hypnotic novel that delves into the unraveling of a marriage, the thin divide between protector and destroyer, and our own reluctance to face death.
The author grew up in and around Great Falls, and it shows in the way he wraps his language around the landscape: “branches so high the ragged April scud seemed caught there like wisps of tapestry, a high circling bird caged in a wickerwork of pale spring bud.”
The author earned his MFA from The University of Montana, and teaches carpentry at Missoula College. He’s also worked as a smelterman, pro-rodeo cowboy, ranch hand and salmon fisherman. Library Journal calls his first novel “startlingly beautiful” and The New York Times lauds it as “a dark and imaginative debut.”
– Kristi Niemeyer