Jon Clinch first caught the literary world’s attention with his 2007 debut novel, Finn, a deliciously gory tale about Huck Finn’s father that provided the details Mark Twain could only hint at. That one probably shocked more than a few fans of Twain’s story. Kings of the Earth is Clinch’s 2010 follow-up to Finn, and in a different way, it is every bit as shocking and surprising as its predecessor.
Set in upstate New York from the years of the Great Depression through 1990, Kings of the Earth is the story of three brothers who still work the farm that has been in their family for more than six decades. None of the now-elderly men ever married and they, in fact, still sleep together on the same mattress they shared as children. The men eke out a meager living from the small herd of dairy cows they own but have lived in isolation for so long that the rest of the world left them behind long ago. Since the passing of their mother - and their only sister’s escape into marriage and a respectable home of her own, the brothers live in complete squalor. So seldom do they bathe, wash their clothing, or clean the room in which they live, that townspeople avoid them even to the point of not wanting to take their smelly currency in trade.
Their little world is shattered when one of the brothers is found dead in the bed they share. Suddenly, the surviving brothers (one is mentally slow and finds it difficult to speak and the other is very persuadable) have to face outsiders with questions about what happened during the night their brother died. When investigators decide that a crime likely has been committed, the two elderly men prove incapable of defending themselves against the accusation.
Kings of the Earth is told from multiple points-of-view in a burst of short chapters (many of which are barely half a page long) that flash to scenes occurring between 1932 and the present day. Some of the chapters are first person narratives of family members, neighbors, and investigators; others are told in third person but focus on events directly experienced by these same secondary characters. In this manner, bits and pieces of the hardscrabble brutality of Proctor family history is revealed by their sister, mother, father, brother-in-law, nephew, near neighbors, and criminal investigators.
As in Finn, Jon Clinch pulls no punches here. His story hints at the violation of a sexual taboo or two, and because of its extremely short chapters and constant switching between narrators, it can be a little jarring at times. The book’s ending will not please everyone, but Kings of the Earth is most certainly not a story that readers will quickly forget. This one is not for the squeamish - but fans of mysteries featuring well developed characters will be happy they discovered it.