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Kings of the Earth: A Novel Hardcover – July 6, 2010

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Jon Clinch on Kings of the Earth

Draw an X across New York State--letting one arm of it be the Erie Canal as it runs from Albany to Buffalo--and where the two arms of that X cross, you'll find the city of Oneida. The place where I grew up. It's a city by name and charter only, so when you picture it you should picture a town instead. A modest one. And on the perimeter of that town, past a sign at the edge of a cornfield that with no irony whatsoever marks the "city limits," picture a rich and endless panorama of farming country. A glacial landscape of great beauty, at work in the service of corn and cows.

My father was born in that farming country, although he didn't stay. He was the son of a previously itinerant day laborer and machinist and circus magician, who had left Tennessee's Clinch Mountain in order to start a new family in upstate New York. My mother, on the other hand, was born in the town. She descended from educators and preachers who traced their lineage to William Howard Taft--not just America's fattest President, but the only one who did double-duty as her Chief Justice.

No wonder I love that "city limits" sign, planted out there at the edge of a cornfield. No wonder I'm interested in whatever divisions it would seem to mark.

The thing is, I never saw the beauty of that place until I'd left it behind. And when I finally discovered what I'd lost, I spent years finding my way back. Kings of the Earth was part of that journey.

In it I tried to capture and preserve the voices of my childhood. The sound of the world as I knew it. The stories that people told, the things they valued, and the ways in which they understood one another (or tried to). Writing it was, as one character says, "like trying to hear a tune somebody whistled last week." But however impossible that kind of thing might be, making the effort can bring a person very close to something precious and important.

Because in spite of the many different voices heard in Kings of the Earth--women and men, farmers and city folks, con men and criminals and keepers of the peace--the book isn't just about how they talk. It's about how they listen. To one another.

The story begins with three old brothers on a dirt farm, just down the road from the place where my father came into this world. Three uneducated brothers who've lived and worked and slept together on that patch of hard ground and in that shack of a house all their lives long. Until the summer morning when one of them doesn't wake up.

Whatever might have happened in that shared bed of theirs was deeply private, but it takes on a wide public dimension. And the effort to make sense of it draws together a community of personalities, each of them with his or her own point of view. Together they draw a portrait that spans the better part of the twentieth century in one small American town, a portrait not just of the brothers but of themselves.

Listening to those people talk--giving them their own voices and putting them all in a book where they might endure for at least a little while--was my aim and above all my honor.


From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In Clinch's multilayered, pastoral second novel (after Finn), a death among three elderly, illiterate brothers living together on an upstate New York farm raises suspicions and accusations in the surrounding community. After their beloved mother, Ruth, dies, Audie, considered mentally "fragile," is devastated, but goes on tending to the Carversville farm with his brothers Vernon and Creed. When Vernon, frail at 60 and not under a doctor's care, dies in his bed with evidence of asphyxiation, Creed is interrogated by troopers, along with Audie, the brother closest to Vernon. Family histories and troubles are divulged in short chapters by a cacophony of characters speaking in first person. Secrets and hidden alliances are revealed: Vernon's nephew, Tom, grew and sold marijuana, which the family used medicinally; the brothers endured painful, bloody haircuts administered by their father. Alongside the police troopers' investigation, each player contributes his own personal perspectives and motivations, including allusions to homosexual behavior. Inspired by the Ward brothers (of the 1992 documentary My Brother's Keeper), Clinch explores family dynamics in this quiet storm of a novel that will stun readers with its power.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (July 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069017
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069019
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,091,233 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Jon Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. His first novel, FINN--the secret history of Huckleberry Finn's father--was named an American Library Association Notable Book and was chosen as one of the year's best books by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. It won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Sargent First Novel Prize. His second novel, KINGS OF THE EARTH--a powerful tale of life, death, and family in rural America, based on a true story--was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine.

Jon has lectured and taught widely, in settings as varied as the National Council of Teachers of English, Williams College, the Mark Twain House and Museum, and Pennsylvania State University. In 2008 he organized a benefit reading for the financially-ailing Twain House--enlisting such authors as Tom Perrotta, Stewart O'Nan, and Robert Hicks--an event that literally saved the house from bankruptcy. A native of upstate New York, Jon lives with his wife in the Green Mountains of Vermont. They have one daughter.

Jon wrote the Amazon sci-fi bestseller WHAT CAME AFTER under the pen name Sam Winston. Most recently, he's the author of UNMEDIATED INK: NOTES FROM THE SELF-PUBLISHING REVOLUTION.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 74 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.

The timeline of this story ranges from the early 1930's up to 1990. As we go back and forth in time we learn about the upbringing and lives of 3 illiterate and eccentric brothers, all born and raised on the family farm in upstate New York. Vernon, Audie and Creed Proctor have lived their entire lives on the farm and have shared the same bed for most of their lives. At the start of this fascinating novel, the year is 1990 and we find out that Vernon, the oldest brother, has died in this communal bed. At first it seems like Vernon has died from natural causes (they are all elderly), but then the medical examiner makes a startling finding that he believes Vernon died from strangulation.

Suspicion thus falls on the remaining two brothers. There is Creed, the only one to have (briefly) lived away from the farm during the time he served in Korea. But there is also the mentally challenged Audie. They are both interviewed by State Trooper Del Graham - a decent man who cares about the Proctors and also wants to see justice done. The Proctors are aided by neighbor Preston Hatch and his wife Margaret. Preston has known the boys their whole lives and feels both compassion and pity for them, and has always tried to help them when they were in need.

Other important narrators include Donna Proctor, the sister, who was the only one to leave the farm and receive a college education. We also hear from Donna's son Tom, and her husband DeAlton - both of them unscrupulous and involved in growing and selling marijuana from the family farm. We also hear from their mother Ruth and their abusive father Lester, as we learn about the boys' upbringing starting in the 1930's.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
With this second novel, Clinch has established himself as a gifted storyteller of rural American life. Like Faulkner and McCarthy, he exposes the underbelly of the dispossessed with a nihilistic, gothic, and poetic style. Like Steinbeck, he portrays the marginal class pedigrees with compassion and wry social observance.

Finn, the author's first novel, was a fictional biography of Huck Finn's father--a savage, twisted man who bears no similarities to Twain's Pap. I was hooked from the merciless opening sentence to its ruthless last pages.

Clinch's new novel shares some of the same themes, characters, and features, such as a disenfranchised cast of people, a whiskey still, a house with a broken spine, a blind man, and a riverine terrain. This story is inspired by the true history of the Ward brothers of Munnsville, New York and the subsequent documentary, "My Brother's Keeper." Researching it on Wikipedia after I read the novel was a helpful complement to the story.

Three elderly brothers--Vernon, Audie, and Creed Proctor--live together on a dilapidated (that's an understatement) farm in upstate New York. One morning, on arising, Vernon is found dead in the bed he shares with his brothers. The investigation of his death in 1990 is the central subject matter of the story, which spans from 1932-1990.

Told in a chorus of voices in short chapters (sometimes one sentence, sometimes a few pages), the narrative alternates from one character to another, like a non-linear chronicle. The title of each chapter or heading is a character's name.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By R. Goolrick on July 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In the acknowledgements at the end of his stunning new novel, KINGS OF THE EARTH, Jon Clinch says, "In literature as in life, we have a duty to see that nothing important should be lost." This is a hell of a good book - the kind of fiction we should be reading instead of the kind of fiction we generally are reading. KINGS OF THE EARTH is something fine and eloquent and moving, words written with precision and a brilliant clarity of heart to stave off loss- the loss of history, the loss of art, of humanity. True feeling seems to be out of fashion in contemporary fiction, and fiction is poorer for it. Disaffection and irony may be the tenor of the times, but brush too close too often and you begin to feel estranged and lonely. Fiction should embrace us, warm us, and make us more human and along comes Jon Finch and we feel that we are once again safe at home, in the hands of a master.

As he did in his wildly acclaimed first novel, FINN, a re-invention of Huck's story from the point of view of his bigoted drunken father, Clinch here takes on a familiar story, turns it inside out and gives it not just new life but new meaning.

In 1990, outside of a small town in upstate New York, William Ward, one of four reclusive, inseparable brothers who lived an isolated and antiquarian life on a rundown farm, died in the bed he shared with his three brothers in their filthy one-room farmhouse. His brother Delbert was eventually accused of strangling him in his sleep and put on trial for murder. The case pitted big city lawyers and high-tech criminal pathology against small town pride and privacy in a riveting way. Delbert was eventually acquitted, because it was concluded that his confession was coerced after hours of intense interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.
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