Set in the gloriously rugged backwoods of the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, Nina Shengold’s gripping debut novel follows three people in search of new lives deep into uncharted terrain of the body and heart.
When rough-hewn loner Earley Ritter picks up a hitchhiker one rainy night, he can’t imagine how much it will change his life. A "shake-rat" who salvages cedar stumps left when loggers clearcut, Earley seems to have little in common with Reed Alton, a gifted Berkeley dropout. But when Earley meets Zan, the fiery and mysterious woman Reed has been following, erotic sparks fly in unexpected directions. Thrown together in the splendid isolation of the woods, with passions and tensions mounting, the unlikely trio achieves a fragile balance that–-like their idyllic patch of forest–-will be shattered by violence. At once a page-turning psychological drama and a colorful, wildly comic recreation of a lost time and place, Clearcut explores the boundaries that divide us, and what it takes to cross them.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.22(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)|
About the Author
Nina Shengold is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and artistic director of the theatre group Actors & Writers. She lives in upstate New York.
Read an Excerpt
Earley Ritter hunched over the steering wheel, dreaming of heat. He was heading for Bogachiel campground, his jeans pocket stuffed full of dimes for the shower. He'd been shake-ratting up in Suhammish all week, and the thought of hot water was next door to sex. His skin had a serious craving for one or the other. He thought about Margie, the woman he'd met at the Cedar Bar Lounge a few Fridays ago, and wondered if she might be there tonight.
The sky threw a couple of drops on his windshield and then really let go. Rain bounced off the tarmac in sheets. Earley turned on his one working headlight, a bright, and wished he'd remembered to pick up new wiper blades. Maybe tonight, if he found a few bucks in his toolkit or under the seat. He'd stop by the Texaco as soon as he got into town, see if someone would front him. But first he would treat himself to a long shower. Of course, with this goddamn monsoon, he could just about pull over, strip and soap down in the rain. If he had any soap.
A log truck slogged past, spraying wake. Earley reached into his Drum pouch, then remembered he'd smoked the last shreds of tobacco as he picked his way down from Suhammish Creek clearcut. He rounded a curve and his lone high beam caught someone huddled up sorry and limp on the roadside. The man was wearing an olive-drab poncho, his thumb sticking out like an afterthought.
Earley braked, his heart racing. I could have killed him, he thought. Dumb fuck doesn't even have enough sense to stand out on a straight stretch of road where somebody might see him. He might have a cigarette, though, and he was closer than town. Earley twisted the wheel and pulled onto the shoulder.
The hitchhiker turned around slowly, as if he'd been out in the rain for so long he'd forgotten that someone might actually stop. He stood staring at Earley's rust-riddled hunter green pickup, then grabbed up his duffel and charged towards the truck.
Earley hoped the guy wasn't some Vietnam burnout. He rolled down the window and squinted, already regretting the impulse to let him in. The hitchhiker leaned forward, gripping the windowsill. His hands were too clean for a local, and under his soaked cuff a gold watchband glinted. He looked like a college kid, skinny and earnest, with long stringy hair and pale skin nearly blue from the cold.
"Thanks for stopping," he said.
Earley gave a curt nod, reluctant to open the door. "Where're you headed?" His voice sounded raspy and strange, and he realized he hadn't spoken aloud for a week.
College, for sure. Earley's heart sank. His bones ached from working. He didn't feel up to listening to some upper-middle-class quest for adventure, not even for free cigarettes. "I'm only going a couple of miles. Hardly worth getting in."
"It's worth it to me." The hitchhiker clutched at the windowsill as if he couldn't bear to let go. He looked so desperate that Earley relented.
"All right. Chuck your gear in back, under the tarp with the tools, and come on around my side. I open that other door, it'll fall off."
The kid nodded and peeled back the tarp, setting his duffel bag down on the truckbed, next to the mud-spattered splitting maul, mallet and froe, and Husqvarna chainsaw case. Earley unfolded himself from the driver's seat. At six-five, up on spike-studded caulk boots, he towered over the hitchhiker's olive-green poncho. The kid looked startled, but all he said was, "I'm going to get your seat sopping."
That didn't even deserve a response. Earley slammed the door shut, jamming the truck back in gear. The wipers sluiced rain in an uneven wash on the windshield, over the peeling decal of a sun with a skeletal grin that some former owner had put there. Earley swerved to avoid a downed tree limb. The back of his throat ached. He looked at his passenger. "Smoke?"
"Ah, no thanks."
Earley broke into a grin, then noticed the way the kid looked at his dead gray front tooth. "You got a smoke?" he asked, irritated. "For me?"
"Oh. No, sorry. I don't smoke tobacco." Earley frowned, gripping the wheel at the bottom. The hitchhiker glanced at him, sizing him up. His pale eyes looked nervous. "I might have a joint, though."
"Well, now you are speaking my language for sure. Light that puppy on up."
"You bet." The hitchhiker put one foot up on the dashboard, fished in the cuff of his soaked jeans and pulled out a stray piece of tinfoil. Inside was the roach of a joint, rolled in something that looked like wet toilet paper.
Earley proffered his Drum pouch, which had half a packet of Zig-Zags inside. The hitchhiker set about rolling a fresh one, fattening it with a pinch of tobacco dust. Earley noticed his fingers were shaking.
"I'd turn on the heat but it's busted. How're you planning to get to Alaska, the state ferry up from Seattle?" The hitchhiker nodded. "'Cause you're on one hell of a detour. This road snakes around the whole fuckin' Olympic Mountains before you even look at the Puget Sound. And when you do get to it, you're on the wrong side."
"So why make it easy?" The hitchhiker reached for the dashboard lighter, but Earley shook his head, handing over a pea-green Bic that worked on the third or fourth try. The kid held the smoke in his nostrils and lungs as he passed Earley the joint, which was rolled as tight as a Tootsie Pop stick. An experienced stoner. The stuff wasn't bad, either. Someone had money. Earley took an appreciative toke as his passenger went on, "I'm looking for someone."
A woman, Earley guessed from his tone. He held smoke in his lungs and waited for him to continue. "She's working near some town called Forks, on a tree-planting crew. She told me to look her up on my way north."
"North from where?"
Earley let out a low whistle. "A thousand miles. Must be some kind of woman."
The hitchhiker took the joint and inhaled deeply, his eyes closed in reverie. His lashes were long and straight, like the fringe on a bedspread. "She is."
Earley nodded. He knew the refrain. The first hit had gone right to his head; he felt suddenly mellow, expansive. "Well, just as it happens I'm headed for Forks. I'm just stopping at Bogachiel for a shower. I've been up in the woods for a week and I smell like the back of a bear. If you're willing to wait-"
"Are you kidding? I'd kill for a shower. Get out of these clothes." The kid put his foot back up onto the dashboard and wrung out his cuff. A stream poured down onto the floor. "Oh. Sorry." His pale blue eyes darted at Earley.
"Nothing this rig hasn't seen before, nine times a day. My name's Earley."
Now there was a preppie name. One of those which-is-the-first-name-and-which-is-the-last numbers. Rich kid en route to Alaska, trying on a blue collar to see how it felt. Earley didn't get it, but he didn't care. Everyone came from somewhere, he figured. What mattered was where they wound up, and he could attest there was plenty of flux in that. Who would have figured a red-dirt hillbilly from Georgia would find himself cutting up tree stumps in these freezing mountains, where even the rain came down sideways? He scratched the side of his beard, where the hatchet scar parted the stubble, and reached for the joint again.
"This is some mighty fine weed, Reed." Earley laughed, not so much at his rhyme as the streak of dumb luck that had gotten him high as a kite on this black, rain-slick night in the middle of nowhere, as far west as a person could get. He snapped on the radio. Eric Clapton was singing "Have You Ever Loved a Woman."
Reed moaned with pleasure. "Oh yes. Oh yes. Crank it."
Earley reached over and twisted the volume knob. Reed sat forward, transfixed, his head swaying back and forth as his long fingers arched, forming chords on his knees. "This is why God put six strings on electric guitars."
"If you say so."
"I do. I just did. What do you listen to, Earley?"
"Whatever there is." Earley wasn't about to go listing his tapes to some kid who played air guitar riffs on his backpacking poncho. He liked music as much as the next guy, but Reed seemed possessed. At least he's not singing along, Earley thought as he spun the wheel, veering off the main highway. I might have to hurt him.
The pickup crunched over the gravel approach road to Bogachiel State Park, its headlight a cone of white drizzle. Mist swirled through the dark tangles of club moss that hung down from cedar and fir boughs like hair. Brambles crouched in the underbrush: wild salmonberry and devil's club.
There wasn't a soul in the campground. Earley cut the engine and they got out of the truck, heading for a squat tile building with a light over its brown metal door. The air smelled of earth and wet cedar. Reed peered at a small wooden sign with a State Park insignia. "Ghost Nurse Log," he read. "What the hell is a nurse log?" He looked up at Earley, who shrugged.
"Oh, we're in the Tourist Outdoors now. Got your Teaching Trail markers, your his'n'hers potties, the whole Forest Circus nine yards. The showers are here for the campground, but you'd have to be brain-dead to camp in the West End in March. You got any dimes on you?"
Reed pulled a handful of change from his pocket and shook it. "Just one. I've got plenty of quarters."
"It only takes dimes. I might could lend you a few." Earley stuck his hand into his jeans and frowned, pulling the pocket lining inside out. It was ripped at the seam, like a cartoon demonstration of pennilessness. "Must've fallen right through."
"Check your boots," Reed suggested. "Maybe they fell in your socks."
Earley shook his head in disgust. "Ain't no dimes in my socks, man. There's dimes in the woods. Fuck a duck. I'd spit logs for a shower."
"Well, we've got one." Reed held out his dime.
Earley stared at his hand for a moment, then burst out laughing. "One dime? Two guys on one dime? You must be high."
"Oh god." Reed looked stricken. "That was a drug?"
Earley gave him a shove and Reed's deadpan dissolved into laughter. "Hey. One dime is better than nothing."
"You got that right." Earley cracked his chipped grin again, surprised by how loose he was feeling. "This'll be legend, man. We're gonna squeeze every drop from that shower."
There weren't any curtains or booths, just a chrome showerhead stuck in one wall and a large metal coin box. The tile floor sloped down to a central drain. Reed peeled off his wet sweatsocks. "I feel like I'm back in my junior high locker room."
They stood with their backs to each other, stripping their clothes off as fast as they could and tossing them onto a bench. The tiles smelled of old disinfectant.
Reed turned out to be one of those rib-skinny, bony-assed guys with a really big dong. How did that happen? Earley wondered. What freak of genetics would make a guy slender and pale as a twelve-year-old girl and then hang that rolling pin on him for laughs? It was one of those things a guy hated to notice; Earley, who'd never had any complaints in that area, didn't like feeling outgunned by a kid who came up to his chin.
But Reed didn't have any swagger. If anything, he looked self-conscious, as if he was trying to keep his eyes off Earley's work-mounded biceps and shoulders. It wasn't that often that strangers got naked together. Maybe the cold air had taken the edge off their pot high, but what had seemed funny five minutes ago now made them both ill at ease. The sensation unfolded in layers: Earley was embarrassed that he felt embarrassed. Maybe he was still a little bit stoned.
"You go under it first," he said, looking away. "It's your dime."
"You drove us here. You should go first."
It was too cold to argue. "Okay, I will." Earley turned towards the showerhead.
"We forgot towels," said Reed.
"Hell yes, we did." Earley didn't own any towels.
"And what about soap?"
"There's some of that squirty stuff by the sink. We better get lathered up first, cause a dime in this thing lasts like two or three minutes. We're gonna be sprinting."
They stood at the porcelain sink, running water and soaping themselves. The sink's hot tap was broken. With every cold slosh on his skin, Earley tried to imagine the shower's fine steam, the needling hot streams bouncing off his stiff shoulders.
Reed shivered. "It's freezing in here."
"Got your dime?"
"It fell out of my pocket." Reed pantomimed turning his pockets inside out. His cock flopped against his thighs.
"Asshole." Earley grabbed for the dime, but Reed closed his fist over it, hiding his arm behind his back. Earley lunged for it. They were both laughing. Earley twisted Reed's arm forward, prying his fingers apart with his own. Reed made a feint to the left, trying to dodge him, but Earley, stronger, forced his hand downwards. Their cold, soapy chests slid together. The skin contact startled them both. In that instant of flinching, Earley heard the amplified ping of a thin disc of metal, rolling along the sloped tiles. He dived for the floor as the dime clattered into the central drain.
"Shit!" Earley stared through the slots, down the throat of the drain. There was nothing to do. He was down on his knees on an ice-cold floor, stark naked, covered with grime, sweat and lathery slime, and their last dime was gone. He rocked back on his haunches and looked at Reed. "Welcome to life in the woods."
"So this woman you're gonna look up, she's a girlfriend or what?" They were back in Earley's truck, heading north. The rain had thinned into mist.
"You'd have to ask her that," said Reed. He stared out at the dark woods, his eyes haunted.
"I guess it's or what, now."
"I surely know that tune. There is this girl Margie I met at the bar. We could grab a hot shower at her place, at least if her husband's still up at the logging camp."
"Why, you dirty dog." Reed grinned to show he was kidding.
Reading Group Guide
“A stunning book, one of the best literary novels I have come across in a long time. Shengold’s prose is fluent like a river, and her characters are as sharp as knives in this beautiful love story.” –Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Nina Shengold’s Clearcut, an engrossing, beautifully written novel about an improbable and surprisingly satisfying love triangle.
1. Earley and Reed meet purely by accident and find Zan at the Cedar Bar Lounge the very same night, although she rarely visits town. Why is the coincidental nature of these early encounters significant? What do these chance meetings establish about the characters and about the particular time and place in which the novel is set?
2. Discuss the initial interplay among the three characters when they meet at the bar [pp. 14—23]. How does Shengold create a sense of tension, as well as attraction, among them?
3. Does one character dominate the encounter at the bar, or does the balance of power shift? What particular exchanges or comments illustrate the role of each character within the group? Do the events at the motel, including Earley’s decision to leave, alter or reinforce the pattern established at the bar?
4. What role does Margie Walkonis play in Earley’s life? What does her unavailability and lack of conventional attractiveness reveal about him? Why do you think the author decided to have their tryst end in a comical farce [p. 33]? Given their relationship throughout the book, does Margie’s behavior at the end [pp. 332—34] come as a surprise?
5. Clearcut is a deft evocation of the 1970s and the frictions that developed between different social and economic groups. Is Earley a neutral observer of the clash between the hippie sensibility and the working-class culture that shaped him and defines the people in Forks? Is his bemused, slightly derogatory description of the treeplanting crew fair [p. 43]? To what extent does it stem from his preconceived notions about privileged, upper-class kids? How does it compare to his attitudes toward the lumber industry and the local population [i.e., pp. 75, 271]? Why does learning that Zan is an army brat, “a hippie treeplanter with working-class roots” [p. 45] make a difference to him?
6. How does the men’s infatuation with Zan serve as a catalyst for their own relationship? If they had met as they did and simply decided to live and work together, would they have formed the same kind of bond?
7. In musing about Reed and Zan, Earley concludes, “For all of Reed’s moony-eyed pining, for all the way Zan threw her body against his and kissed him all over, something between them was not what it should be” [p. 107]. How objective is his point of view? Does he see the situation more clearly than Reed and Zan do? To what extent does each of the characters allow his or her needs and desires to explain–and manipulate–the relationships developing among them?
8. The shower scene [pp. 8—10] is at once funny and prescient. Why is “Earley embarrassed that he felt embarrassed” [p. 9]? How do Earley and Zan’s reactions to the erotic undercurrent between them differ? Is this difference grounded in their individual psychological makeups, or do social factors also play a part?
9. When the trio ends up in bed together, Earley “blessed Zan for knocking the hurricane lamp over, starting the fire. Fate or accident?” [p. 138]. How would you respond to this question? Does the scene evolve naturally? Is Shengold’s detailed, graphic description essential to the plot and character development?
10. What insights does the conversation the following morning provide into each of the three characters [pp.141—143]? Why is Zan more comfortable with what happened than the men? What assumptions does Earley make about what will happen in the future? How do these compare to Reed’s reactions and assumptions?
11. As the complications, both sexual and romantic, increase, which character wields the most control? Which one is the most “needy”? Does this change when Earley and Reed become lovers [pp. 251—253]?
12. The idyll comes to an end when the three of them are discovered by Harlan Walkonis [p. 289]. How does this incident bring the various themes of the novel together? Why does it end in violence?
13. The idyll comes to an end when the three of them are discovered by Harlan Walkonis [p. 289]. How does this incident bring the various themes of the novel together? Why does it end in violence?
14. Is Earley responsible in some way for what happens to Reed at the end of the novel? Can you imagine another ending? What purpose does the encounter between Earley and Reed’s father serve?
15. What does Clearcut illustrate about the relationship between sexual identity and love and desire? To what extent do the characters break free of the identities they created for themselves or had imposed upon them by society?
16. How does Shengold use the setting to deepen our understanding of the characters? What particular passages illuminate Earley’s emotional connection to the rough terrain and the demands it makes upon him? Does his appreciation of nature make him more appealing to the reader? How are Zan and Reed changed by their exposure to the wilderness?
17. Does Nina Shengold’s background in the theater affect the way the story unfolds? Does her experience as a playwright and screenwriter influence her style of writing as well?