In March 2008, Jon Clinch made an appearance at a bookstore in northern Virginia. There were less than a dozen of us in attendance to hear Clinch read from and talk about his debut novel, Finn.
That must have been a disappointing night for Clinch, to appear before such a tiny crowd on the outskirts of Washington D.C., in a bookstore that would normally attract more than a hundred readers for well-known authors -- Elmore Leonard, for example, or Ian Rankin. I remember sharing his disappointment.
Finn had been received well critically, but obviously didn't attract many readers. I thought it was a smashing debut; inventive in telling the mythic story of Huck Finn through the eyes of his cruel, devious and drunken father, Pap.
Kings of the Earth, Clinch's second book, is just as inventive, just as powerful and just as well-written as his first novel. It's captured the attention of critics and, one would hope, has also attracted more readers for this deserving author.
Kings of the Earth is the story of three brothers who lives are largely confined to their dairy farm in upstate New York. The story is told through multiple points of view -- a well-meaning neighbor, the brother's sister and nephew, the brothers' mother and the brothers themselves -- and jumps back and forth through time.
The book's publishers (Random House) published a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle on the book jacket's inside flap that compares Clinch to William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Edward P. Jones. Those comparisons aren't wide of the mark, but one name is missing from that list -- E.L. Doctorow.
In its Gothic tone and sympathies that are stoutly in support of this trio of innocent, yet ignorant protagonists, Kings of the Earth greatly resembles Doctorow's 2009 novel, Homer & Langley. Both books delve into the eccentric, yet benign, side of man.
One can't help but wonder if the appeal of these two books -- beyond the excellent writing -- doesn't lie in the fascination we have for such eccentrics and in the realization that there, but for the grace of God go I. One only needs to watch a couple of episodes of American Picker to know that there are oddballs throughout the country and, if displaying a little self-awareness, understand that a love for books can all too easily become a mania.
Kings of the Earth is a terrific companion volume to Finn. Clinch has established himself as a first-rate novelist and an insightful chronicler of the loners and oddballs who populate the sidelines of American life.