Set in the upper east coast, Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth meanders through the years and lives of the Proctor family and their close neighbor Preston Poole. Though not a play, I can't help but think about The Death of a Salesman and Wily Loman's predestined fate preventing him from ever realizing his dreams. Clinch does not take that romantic of a view of the agrarian life; rather, he shows just how difficult farming is and how the modern world seems to advance right around farms the way freeways will snake around, under and over towns.
If you prefer character driven novels, then this is for you. Clinch weaves between past and present, near and far recollections to tell the story of how the oldest of three brothers dies in his sleep and how his two brothers are implicated in his death. The Proctor family lived a simple life at the turn of the twentieth century and progressed very little when the approached the turn of the twenty-first century. One might call this novel the one hundred year struggle.
The primary plot line is that of the investigation into the death of Vernon Proctor, the eldest brother, and how his brothers Creed and Audie were involved, if at all. Clinch draws parallels between characters of the past and present, primarily focusing on their late drunken father, Lester, and weakened mother, Ruth, who serve as touchstones for the family as few go very far in their lives past their parents' agrarian struggle. Except for Donna. She is the boys' only sister and is the only one who makes it off the farm.
Clinch narrates with an eye toward physical atmosphere, symbolic images, and irony. Each passage, all averaging about 1,000 words, many of them even shorter, paint vivid pictures of poor farm life, close family life, and loyal bonds between neighbors. Take the Proctor's names for instance. Vernon comes from the root “Vern” which means alder, like the tree. Vernon is like a towering tree for his family: strong, safe, secure, giving. Creed, is like its meaning, believable. The most “ordinary” of his brothers. The one who goes off to fight in the Korean War and who is the only one who pursues a love interest. Audie, the most sympathetic of all the characters, is the middle brother and is born with disabilities in speech and general intelligence. But he “hears” every audible sound from the whining of the wind to the strained breathing of his ill brother, Vernon.
This is a book for patient readers. For those who are willing to invest time in the slow development of characters and in the careful characterization of setting. The sub plots of a Donna's son Tom, a low-level drug dealer, adds to the novel rather than detract from it as some sub plots will do. I'd recommend this book for a long car ride, a leisurely vacation, or any other time when you can invest lots of time reading as each of the small passages are best enjoyed in large chunks at a time.