The Montana of Kim Zupan's first novel is not Ivan Doig's land of hardworking ranchers and small-town plain folks. Nor is it the home of amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. Set in the emptiness of east Montana, The Ploughman is the story of 77-year-old serial killer John Gload and Copper County Deputy Sheriff Valentine Millimaki. After a former accomplice ratted him out in a plea bargain, Gload is in jail awaiting trial. Recently hired, Millimaki is stuck on third shift to guard Gload and try to coax him to divulge where he buried his many victims.
In the quiet hours they spend together, a bond gradually forms between the two men--at first based on their similar farming childhoods, but later intensified by the shared isolation of their lives and their frequent proximity to death. Struggling in his unraveling marriage, Val suffers exhausting insomnia. With his tracking dog, Tom, he takes daytime assignments to find missing persons while his wife works as an intensive care nurse. He and Tom eventually find the lost--at least their remains. Gload, on the other hand, kills to support himself, robbing his victims and carefully scattering their bones like "a man running sawlogs through a mill. He was handy at his work and it afforded him a living."
An MFA graduate of the University of Montana, Zupan brings a moody darkness to his home state. In this way, The Ploughman is more Silence of the Lambs than This House of Sky. As Val's life unwinds and he broods over its meagerness ("a three room cabin at the end of a bad road... twelve hundred a month and an eleven year old Datsun"), he temporarily falls under the sway of Gload's fatherly camaraderie ("we're just a couple of hard-luck orphans, ain't we Valentine"). But the false friendship doesn't take--Gload is still a killer and Val a lawman intent on seeing him put away in the Deer Lodge Penitentiary for the rest of his life.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on Sept. 22, 2014.
Zupan counterpoises the beauty of Montana's mountain ranges and vast wheat fields with its harsh loneliness that can nurture violence and depression. His story of Val and Gload, "like two trains going different ways," is an insightful glimpse into the characters of two men confronting life and death alone and up close. The Ploughman leaves us with a lingering sense that few can live untouched by the vast indifference of Montana.