War's hidden costs
<B>War's hidden costs</B>Tim Gautreaux's mesmerizing second novel opens with a family searching for one of its own in the years following WWI. Byron Aldridge was preordained to take over the family's mills until he comes back from France "with the haunted expression of a poisoned dog" and no interest in returning to Pittsburgh. In 1923, his father dispatches Byron's younger brother Randolph to the remote mill in western Louisiana where Byron has landed as constable to "bring him back to us," both literally and emotionally. Paradoxically called "Nimbus," the mill is home to 500 workers, black and white, living in separate quarters and drinking on opposite sides of the saloon men rough enough to survive, Randolph writes home, this "waterlogged, weather-tortured, weed wracked" place. Felling and sawing and spitting out planks from a huge tract of cypress is but a small part of what the brothers do for the next five years. Violence is an everyday occurrence, and revenge is always swift to follow. Shortly after Randolph's arrival, Byron kills a man while breaking up a fight, and Randolph wonders at his brother's calm demeanor. Did he inherit the ability to kill a man "as if he were a fly biting an ear?" Or were his war memories, still unshared, responsible for encasing him inside a seemingly impenetrable shell? The old marshal from nearby Tiger Island, the setting of Gautreaux's first novel, sees in Byron the same look he saw in the faces of roving gangs after the Civil War, men consumed by hate which they passed on to their progeny "like crooked teeth and club feet."The horror of war and its effect on the human psyche lies at the core of the novel; as the marshal succinctly tells Randolph, Byron "just got ruint in France." In poetic prose Gautreaux brings to gritty life this backwater microcosm of war's aftermath and its diverse inhabitants, all in search of salvation in the swamp they call home. Like the thick fog which nightly descends on the mill, the mounting tension envelopes the reader, who senses that Armageddon is fast approaching this desolate stretch of bayou.