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Literature of lawlessness 

In Tim Gautreaux's extraordinary novel "The Clearing," two brothers go to a wilderness where they attempt to create civilization in the form of law enforcement, schools, churches, and jobs. That summary makes it sound like a novel of the Old West. But actually it's set in Louisiana in the 1920s.

"The Clearing" has drawn more comparisons to "Cold Mountain" or "Heart of Darkness" than "Shane." I don't want to dispute those comparisons. But I think this one shows the reason why literature of the Old West has such enduring power.

Most of us live lives fully entwined with police and fire departments, well-defined jobs, neighbors and friends, families that for better or worse keep tabs on us. We live, in other words, among fully-grown moral institutions. But the lack of those institutions would really test individual character -- and that's what we love to read about: tests of character.

The Old West has come to symbolize that: a place too far removed from police or military, insurance companies or welfare rolls -- a place where you have to fight rampaging Indians or greedy ranchers or natural disasters with your own mettle. Sure, that may not be exactly the way it happened. And sure, lots of hack writers have come to use sandstone buttes and cowboy hats as cheap shorthand. But only because the setup has such lasting power.

In addition to being a very well-written novel with beautiful descriptions and a strong sense of place, "The Clearing" does some extraordinary things. For one, the protagonist is a businessman-hero. He creates jobs, tries to balance efficiency and fair treatment of employees, and is genuinely fascinated by the details of his career (in this case, managing a lumber mill). That describes an awful lot of Americans -- though too few literary heroes.

For another, the book describes the wholesale clearcutting of an old-growth cypress forest -- what we today would consider an environmental catastrophe -- while still presenting its characters as acting with honor, as honor is defined in their world. While providing subtle hints that the world has evolved since then, Gautreaux so effectively paints the 1920s that we can admire his characters while they do things we would find abhorrent today.

Finally, the book has some very interesting theories about mental illness. I hesitate to use the word "theories" here, as that makes this sound like a pedantic book. It's not: it's full of gangsters, alligators, and other action-generating threats. But many of the characters are deeply scarred by their participation in World War I, and two of them independently follow similar routes away from madness. (One might have been coincidence. But two tells me Gautreaux wants us to learn something.)

Still, to me the most exciting part of the book was watching the brothers make decisions we rarely have to: How do you act when there's nobody there to tell you how to act? How do you stop a fight? Which violations of social order require the response of violence? Americans have been creatively (if not always justifiably) answering those questions for generations -- and because of that, I think, the questions continue to engage us deeply.

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