Picks and Pans Review: The Clearing

updated 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 01:00AM

By Tim Gautreaux
Critic's Choice

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Life isn't pretty in swampy, lawless Poachum Station, La., in the 1920s. Byron Aldridge, a changed man since his return from World War I, helps his brother Randolph manage a sawmill, but their toughest task is controlling the brawls and shootings among mill workers at the local saloon. Randolph envies his blind horse because it "couldn't worry about things it could no longer see, its life simplified by tragedy." And there is tragedy for the brothers too, as bad blood thickens among rival factions: A housekeeper is shot dead and a poisonous snake appears in a baby's crib.

This big, burly novel is both suspenseful and graceful, the plot gathering speed as tiny insults accrue. Gautreaux is a skilled stylist—easily forgiven for occasional overwrought phrases—who calmly unveils the tender loyalties between the brothers. Their troubles coalesce into a sad, satisfying tale. (Knopf, $23)

BOTTOM LINE: Clear-eyed and gripping

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