I’ve been reading a lot of new Southern fiction lately. Much of it has reminded me of overwrought Beasts of the Southern Wild emerging from our swamps and parading across the nation’s imagination. Now I love a good gothic grotesque character as much as the next person, but not every writer possesses the credentials of a Flannery O’Connor or a William Faulkner.
So it was with more than my usual curiosity that I began Wiley Cash’s new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, set in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Thankfully, Cash’s novel is populated with realistic characters whose conflicted lives follow a believable and compelling course. At the heart of the book are twelve-year old Easter Quillby and her sister Ruby, who have been placed in a Home after their mother’s death from a drug overdose. Both girls have had to grow up fast. Six-year old Ruby in particular sometimes sounds like an old woman. Here, she muses on the day’s events:
She was quiet but her eyes were still open, … she was thinking about something. “I hope you can get some pictures of Mom soon,” she said. “I can’t even remember her.” (10)
Three other characters, all adult men, provide the push-pull of the plot and illustrate Cash’s dedication: “For families of all kinds.” Brady Weller is the sisters’ guardian ad litem. This voluntary position is his penance and redemption for an accident which cost him his family and job as a detective. Wade Chesterfield, the girls’ long-absent and irresponsible father, claims that the court tricked him into giving up his parental rights. But now he’s back, determined to reclaim his daughters, even if doing so requires kidnapping them. Finally, Robert Pruitt shows Cash’s dedication in a negative way. In the passage below he remembers how his father taught him to use a baseball bat.
The old man taught me how to hit a fastball by setting an empty bottle of Michelob Light on top of a T-ball tee he’d picked up at a yard sale….he stepped back and took a swig from a fresh beer, nodded toward the empty bottle, and said, “Go on and hit it.”
After we’d gone through a six-pack …[he] twisted the top off another beer and set the six-pack down on the hood of the car. “Could you feel that glass on you?” he asked.
When I looked down at my wet arms I saw that it wasn’t just the beer that had been sprinkling my skin; little bits of glass has been mixed in too. (34)
Pruitt has grown into a true Flannery O’Connor grotesque with eyes hidden behind sunglasses, muscles bulked up from steroids, and a handgun stuffed in his waistband. Recently released from prison, he is tracking Wade and the girls to retrieve money Wade stole from a local gangster.
In this, his second novel, Cash raises the ancient universal question, what is the difference between justice and mercy? In an odd way, Pruitt is the arbiter of justice, the Old Testament kind. Wade has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he, Pruitt, will return the fortune to its unlawful owner (who stole it in an armored car heist). But Pruitt’s true motive is personal revenge. As he leaves the office, the Boss’s voice stops him.
“So what do you have against Wade Chesterfield?”
My face turned toward him. “Why?”
It just seems like you want to find him more than I do.”
“He stole something from me too.”
“Really,” the Boss said. “And what would that be?”
I took my hand off the doorknob and lifted my sunglasses. The Boss’s smile fell when he saw what was beneath them. “Everything.” (41-42)
Another form of justice is the traditional path Brady Weller follows as he trails the sisters. That he now makes a living selling Safe-at Home security systems does not mean he has forgotten his detective skills. In fact, no longer constrained by legalities, he learns before the police do that they are headed to St. Louis with Wade to see the home-run showdown between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Weller was earlier a recipient of mercy when, after his accident, he wasn’t required to take a drug test. This tip of the hat to a fellow officer means that he has never been able to prove what really happened. But his own mercy is directed toward rescuing Easter and Ruby, especially once he realizes that Pruitt, who stole a photo of Easter to help track her and who showed no mercy to a helpless old woman, will surely have none for a child.
The most merciful heart belongs to Easter. Though she would rename herself Boston Terrier, because it was her mother’s favorite dog and it sounds like a detective’s name, “Easter” is perfect: hope is resurrected in her. Earlier, she is slow to warm to Wade when he watches her at a kick ball game. After all, he gave them up, signed away his rights as a father. Why has he suddenly reappeared? Why does he insist they climb out the window of their bedroom at the Home and leave behind the toys and books and the first matched set of sheets they’ve ever called their own? Why does he cuddle Ruby and leave her to ride the Ferris wheel by herself? But when Wade, once a promising leftie who played with Sammy Sosa for the Gastonia Rangers, wins his own contest pitching against a young athlete who insulted her, Easter realizes that he loves her, that he “has her back.” And so, she has his, in the end.
The road to mercy may be dark, but, up ahead, there’s light.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes …
–William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1)
Who are some of your favorite Southern authors? Do you find their stories to be darker than those from other regions?