The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan
The Ploughmen: A Novel by Kim Zupan
The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

A young sheriff and a hardened killer form an uneasy and complicated bond in this mesmerizing first novel that “captures the feel of Montana.” (Larry McMurtry)

“One of finest evocations of life in Western America in recent memory... Powerful and profoundly moving.”—William Kittredge

Steeped in a lonesome Montana landscape as unyielding and raw as it is beautiful, Kim Zupan's The Ploughmen is a new classic in the literature of the American West.

At the center of this searing, fever dream of a novel are two men—a killer awaiting trial, and a troubled young deputy—sitting across from each other in the dark, talking through the bars of a county jail cell: John Gload, so brutally adept at his craft that only now, at the age of 77, has he faced the prospect of long-term incarceration and Valentine Millimaki, low man in the Copper County sheriff’s department, who draws the overnight shift after Gload’s arrest. With a disintegrating marriage further collapsing under the strain of his night duty, Millimaki finds himself seeking counsel from a man whose troubled past shares something essential with his own. Their uneasy friendship takes a startling turn with a brazen act of violence that yokes together two haunted souls by the secrets they share, and by the rugged country that keeps them.

Praise for The Ploughmen

“Stunning…A remarkable novel... It's almost hard to believe that it’s a debut…. It's a portrait of the West as a sometimes desolate and cold place, full of possibility, maybe, but also full of danger from every corner. It's a modern West, caught between the romance of the frontier and the mundane, harsh realities of living in the present day United States. And it’s absolutely beautiful, from its tragic opening scene to its tough, necessary end. Zupan is an unsparing writer, but also a generous, deeply compassionate one.”


“Kim Zupan has captured the feel of Montana: He has made a fine beginning.”

—Larry McMurtry

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove

“In a voice that evokes the great contemporary Western landscape, Kim Zupan’s debut novel The Ploughmen weaves a gripping tale both personal and epic. This is a story of two men, a deputy and his prisoner, and the uncommon bond forged between them. A stunning work from the first pages to the last, this is a book that will not let down.”

—Claire Davis

author of Winter Range and Labors of the Heart

“Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen is one of finest evocations of life in Western America in recent memory, a book that stands alongside Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, James Welch’s Fools Crow...Zupan’s prose is elegant and reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at his best, and the action is terrifying and abrupt. And yet at heart this is a powerful and profoundly moving story about the heartbroken souls of women and men who are attempting to fashion significant lives in the grassy plains of Montana.”

—William Kittredge

author of Hole in the Sky

The Ploughmen is simply splendid; lyrical, surprising, authoritative and starkly honest in its rendering of the human soul. The relationships between Mr. Zupan’s complex and heartbreaking characters gripped me from the first page and have left me wondering still at the grace that affords us moments of generosity and compassion.”

—Mark Spragg

author of An Unfinished Life

The Ploughmen is part inspired fever-dream, part adventure story, a lyric parable of not just goodand evil but of the vast and beautiful and often lonely country in-between. Kim Zupan is a wonder.”

—Rick Bass

author of The Watch and The Wild Marsh

The Ploughmen is as good a book as I’ve read in years. Kim Zupan’s language is as rich as Cormac McCarthy’s, and like Cormac’s, it comes from ground-zero of the heart. I’m also reminded of James Lee Burke’s sure-footed prose and delight in metaphor. Luminous...nothing short of brilliant...a firstnovel that leaves me impatient for the next.”

—Rick DeMarinis

author of The Year of the Zinc Penny and Borrowed Hearts: New and Selected Stories

“[A] riveting debut....A fascinating first novel that examines the complexities of two men, opposites in every way, whose lives nevertheless intertwine. With such a strong debut, Zupan’s literary future looks exceptionally promising.”

Library Journal

“It would be too simple to say The Ploughmen centers on the idea of good and evil; it is not so black and white as that. The story is perpetually gray, with pockets of light and dark, not just in its morality but in its scenery…. [Zupan] writes with a kind of straightforwardness reminiscent of Kerouac. This memorable debut is at times strikingly beautiful, while at others quite bleak, but it is always poignant.”


The Ploughmen is Kim Zupan’s debut novel, and it’s a true head-trip. With beautiful language and strange, fast-paced transitions, he creates an insomniac experience for the reader— it’s like walking through a dream—sometimes a nightmare…. The Ploughmen is a meticulously crafted novel. Zupan has written a strange, beautiful, and violent story. The loss he presents is truly felt. The relationships are well drawn and incredibly believable—in many ways these characters could be your neighbors.”

Criminal Element

“An impressive debut, a magnificently dark novel that evocatively depicts the modern American West.”

Largehearted Boy

“Nuanced…fascinating…What Zupan offers is a superb, retro prose style, channeling William Faulkner in long passages engorged with vocabulary, and meditations on what it means to be alive, if barely, in rural Montana circa 1980…a rich, morose meditation on death, law enforcement, and friendship.”


“We know we are in the hands of a master storyteller from the very first pages of Kim Zupan’s powerful, beautifully crafted debut novel The Ploughmen…. The searing, lyrical prose, relentless violence, and tenuous moments of reprieve are reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor…. The disturbing yet quietly redemptive finale to this gripping and psychologically nuanced tale leaves the reader satisfied. Bravo, Mr. Zupan.”

Montana Quarterly

“Zupan counterpoises the beauty of Montana's mountain ranges and vast wheat fields with its harsh loneliness that can nurture violence and depression. His story of Val and Gload, ‘like two trains going different ways,’ is an insightful glimpse into the characters of two men confronting life and death alone and up close. The Ploughmen leaves us with a lingering sense that few can live untouched by the vast indifference of Montana.”

Shelf Awareness

An Excerpt from The Ploughmen


As if to fend off a blow he threw up his arms in front of his face and the first bullet went through his thin forearm and through the top half of his right ear and went whirring into the evening like a maddened wasp. The next as he turned to run took him high in the back of the neck and he fell headlong and did not move. The old man went to him and examined the wound critically. He turned the boy over. The bullet had come out below his nose and the old man considered its work, while the boy batted his eyes and took in the sky beyond the killer’s bland and placid face—gray clouds of failing winter, a small black leaf, a black kite, at last an enormous wheel of March’s starlings, descending with the mere sound of breath.

*   *   *

From where he sat, the old man could see the river, the whitecaps and the pitching gulls indistinguishable, and he could see the tallest buildings of the old smelterworks beyond the coulee’s steep flanks and in the east the shadowed Missouri Breaks raggedly diminishing into the hazy blue gloaming of coming spring. He could feel the last of winter in the wind, see it in the color of the river, gray and churning like molten lead.

The soil there was poor and sandy and the grass on those slopes grew sporadically and reminded him of pigs’ hair. There were yucca and prickly pear and he could hear like a faint voice in his ear the hiss of blowing soil at the ridge crest. Still a farmer, he thought. He sifted the dirt through his fingers. The slope below was nearly bare and troughed by the melt-off of ten thousand springtimes. Still a goddamn farmer. Seed put down here would most likely just wash away. Scattered about lay cobbles of sandstone, spalls of shale like medieval roof tiles randomly shingling the slanted ground. A gull came near enough that above the wind and the sea-spray hiss he could hear its thin woman-cry. He looked up briefly, then called to the young man below him in the coulee bottom. “Deeper,” he said. “You got to make it deeper.”

The man looked up and leaned on his shovel handle briefly and then continued to dig.

“Hear me?” he said.

About Kim Zupan

Kim Zupan

Kim Zupan, a native Montanan, lives in Missoula and grew up in and around Great Falls, where much of The Ploughmen is set. For twenty-five years Zupan made a living as a carpenter while pursuing his writing. He has also worked as a smelterman, pro rodeo bareback rider, ranch hand, Alaska salmon fisherman and presently teaches carpentry at Missoula College. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana.

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An Excerpt from The Ploughmen

Q. Your résumé is very eclectic: aircraft maintenance specialist for the Air National Guard, smelter worker, professional bareback horse rider, ranch hand, commercial purse seiner fisherman, carpenter and cabinetmaker, and, of course, author. What path led you to such varied work?

A. My family was a big one—six kids—so there wasn’t a great deal of expendable income lying around. My earliest jobs were a way to finance college. In high school I worked on ranches in the Judith Basin in the summertime and, later, for what at the time were big bucks, at the Anaconda Company smelter, where they refined copper and zinc. Later I worked as a way to support my rodeo jones. I was a land surveyor and worked in a lumberyard. I unloaded boxcars full of empty milk jugs. After graduate school, a good friend and fellow writer got me a job as a carpenter. I knew nothing, had no tools, but found I liked the trade. The guy who owned the business had a doctorate in English literature. He was a one-man, blue-collar NEA; for years he carried a succession of poets and writers with questionable manual skills just to keep them from starving to death. He was a wonderful man.

Q. It was in Missoula that you discovered your two enduring passions: writing and riding bareback horses. How did those very different passions emerge? How do they influence each other? Do you still ride?

A. There was a time when nothing much mattered to me but riding bareback horses. I was in undergraduate school during most of that time, reading great books and working on stories with the Missoula sage Bill Kittredge. My rodeo partner was the now-famous cowboy-poet and great friend Paul Zarzyski, who was a graduate student working under Richard Hugo. For hours driving around the country we talked bucking horses and writing poems. Both passions encapsulate desire, elation, euphoria, very often defeat, and dejection in a small package. Eight seconds. Two hundred and fifty pages. It’s all in there.

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