The hard struggle to be a brother's keeper

In a Louisiana swamp, two brothers rediscover each other

And on the fourteenth month, Oprah said, It is not good that the book club should be closed. I will make another. And out of the backlist Oprah took one of the classics, East of Eden, and opened up the airways instead thereof and breathed the breath of publicity, and the classic became a bestseller again. And the bookstores saw everything that she had made, and, behold, it was very good.

John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," a bestseller when it appeared in 1952, still sells a respectable 40,000 to 50,000 copies a year, but when the talk show diva recently chose it as the first title for her revived book club, she sent that number more than 10 times as high.

Steinbeck's portentous epic follows quarrelsome brothers in California. His allusions to the Bible's first dysfunctional family have all the subtlety of the mark of Cain. It's a classic I'm happy to have read, but don't want to read again.

In fact, while it shot up the paperback bestseller list this month, I was enthralled by a new revision of the Eden myth called "The Clearing," by Tim Gautreaux.

This novel about two estranged brothers makes you resent distractions like working, eating, or sleeping. The story opens in the early 1920s when a wealthy lumber magnate gets word that his elder son, Byron, has been discovered working as a mill constable in Louisiana. Long regarded as the favorite, Byron had been destined to take over the family's vast empire, but he returned from World War I a troubled, angry man who wanted nothing to do with his family. Hoping to win him back, his autocratic father, who hovers unseen in the background of this novel like God, buys the mill and dispatches the younger son, Randolph, to collect him.

Once very close, the brothers now have nothing in common. "Byron's life was a motionless thing," Gautreaux writes. "Most people drifted and reshaped like clouds throughout their lives, pushed along by poverty or wealth, disaster or luck. Byron was a self-contained vessel of sorrow that needed to be broken open."

As an observer, then a spy, and finally a soldier, Byron witnessed and committed atrocities in Europe that have left him a brutal, shaken man. In Louisiana, gentle Randolph discovers him settling drunken disputes with a shovel and then retiring to his shack to listen to sentimental ballads on a rotting Victrola.

With poetic efficiency, Gautreaux presents the mill town in a dark, fetid swamp filled with alligators, disease, and men of unimaginable strength and violence. "Randolph hoped for an adequately maintained property that he could fine-tune," he writes. "However, when the train clattered into a clearing of a hundred stumpy acres, the settlement lay before him like an unpainted model of a town made by a boy with a dull pocketknife. Littered with dead treetops, wandered by three muddy streets, the place seemed not old but waterlogged, weather tortured, weed wracked."

Daunted by his first real management assignment, Randolph nonetheless throws himself into rehabilitating his brother and processing a fortune in lumber. Both tasks prove far more difficult than he expected. The war has scraped away Byron's once charming personality and left only a surly, taciturn core, vacillating between explosions of violence and sweeps of sentimentality. The millworkers, meanwhile, seem determined to murder one another every weekend at a little saloon on the grounds maintained by a Mafia syndicate.

With the naiveté of a Yankee businessman sheltered by the columns of a ledger, Randolph orders the saloon closed on Sundays and condescendingly advises his brother to settle disputes with a gentler hand. One boisterous night, he offers to show Byron how it should be done, but instead, he accidentally ignites a conflict with the Italian gangsters that threatens to destroy them all. The deepest chills in "The Clearing" come when Gautreaux captures the fractured minds of these evil men determined to resist any exercise of justice or restraint.

Randolph stands aghast at the barbarity of his new enemies, the cruelty that made them so, and the acts he must commit to stop them. But Byron knows how to speak with them in a language they can hear. In one of many unblinking scenes, he smashes his way into the boss's office and then pulls the entire building into a river.

Laced with the mechanics of milling lumber and restraining self-destructive men, the novel moves with the pacing of twilight, turning gradually but inexorably toward an ominous darkness.

Gautreaux understands the conflicting emotions of horror and pity, along with that weird scrambling that somehow speeds up time and stops it cold in moments of sudden violence.

What's most rewarding about this novel, though, is its ability to portray fraternal affection with the same power as the hatred that slashes through these brother's lives.

Randolph's maturity and Byron's recovery are slow, painful processes that Gautreaux delineates in a story that's at once tender and unrelentingly exciting. There are enough ghastly creatures slithering through this swamp to hold anyone's interest, and enough moral insight to enlighten anyone's conscience.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail about the book section to Ron Charles.

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