In Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen, there is no country for good men. No easy virtue, no simple truth. Only the land and the loss and the learning to live with it. The high lonesome of the Montana sky, an emptiness formed anew in all who inhabit its vistas.
Other than laconic conversations and the incessant scratchings of remembrance, the main action in The Ploughmen consists of digging—literally and figuratively. Digging holes to bury the past, digging for the truth to reclaim the present. Zupan forces us to dig as well, cutting for sign as we, like Deputy Valentine Millimaki, follow the vermiculate patterns set by the aging killer John Gload.
The ghosts of John Gload haunt The Ploughmen, as Millimaki is asked to use his night shift at the prison to glean information from Gload about the old man’s many crimes. A verbal manhunt as it were, similar to what Millimaki and his dog conduct physically for the department when someone goes missing. Lately, those Millimaki has been tasked to find have been found too late, building a morbid streak of the missing, killed by whatever loss, horror, or foolishness drove them into the Montana wilds in the first place.
The two men find a halting friendship in their sleep-deprived discussions, bonding over shared loss and their understanding that in such country, “…it’s just hard to be alone.” Millimaki finds his sense of himself going missing as well, and we come to fear the direction his morbid streak may take him, as Zupan’s story gains the poignancy its language earns from the beginning, evocative of Cormac McCarthy and reminiscent of Smith Henderson’s recent Fourth of July Creek:
“Having shifted forward, Gload now sat half in light, half in dark, and he looked to have been sheared in two and set for display, head and shoulders of a taxidermied felon, a trophy displayed for tourists or schoolchildren in a diorama of prison life: table, chair, cot. Killer.” (91)
As ground is broken yet again, The Ploughmen reaches a conclusion shocking for both its violence and its tenderness, a conclusion true to both the loneliness and the land.