If you were raised, as I was, in a small church with intense ideals at odds with mainstream culture, you can remember that awkward pressure to stand apart from the world and, as the Bible commands, be “separate.” There’s a price to be paid for that separateness, especially during those adolescent years of desperate belonging, but there are compensatory rewards, too. Some smug atheist might imagine that the devout live in a state of bovine credence, but for me — and for many people I know — faith has been a fierce struggle with the most profound questions of human life.
Considering the persistent varieties of religious experience in America, we aren’t blessed with nearly enough good novels about the diverse currents of spirituality. And the shelves are particularly quiet — or unhelpfully shrill — on the more radical expressions of religious belief. Which makes Scott Cheshire’s first novel, “High as the Horses’ Bridles,” all the more enticing.
Cheshire was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a church that evolved from the Bible Student movement that began in the late 19th century. In the crude shorthand of religious Post-It Notes: They’re the ones who refuse blood transfusions. But more important to this novel, they’re also the ones who believe in the imminent arrival of Armageddon and the violent destruction of this fallen world. The title “High as the Horses’ Bridles” comes from the Book of Revelation in a verse that describes just how deep the sinners’ blood will flow in the streets.
That apocalyptic image hangs over each of the three surprisingly disparate parts of this novel. The opening section is a 30-page episode set in a new church in Queens in 1980. Cheshire moves through the congregation, capturing the swirling emotions of excitement and boredom, suspense and joy, all gathering to focus on a nervous, 12-year-old boy named Josiah Laudermilk. He’s about to stand before 4,000 parishioners who are “awaiting a description of this world. And the next.” Able to recall and recite long passages of the Bible, Josiah is a weird kid, powerless at school but strong in this house of God. His father stares up at him in rapture, wondering, “Who could’ve hoped for a son like this?” And in the brilliant light of all those expectant eyes, Josiah suddenly sloughs off his nervousness, drops his notes and yells: “Look! For the Lord and His army come knocking!”
It’s a perfectly calibrated scene, spun from bits of family backstory, meandering asides and moments of quiet comedy that are suddenly swept up in a final conflagration of youthful vanity and spiritual passion on the pulpit. Cheshire himself was once a child preacher, and he’s clearly reaching back to that unique sense of exaltation that sometimes ignites a witness of God’s glory.
But this is largely a story that takes place in the ashes of that passion. The bulk of the novel, told in the first person, opens 25 years later when Josiah leaves his miserable life in California to return home — reluctantly, tardily — to care for his ailing father. While Josie abandoned his faith (and his full, formal name) years ago, his father has continued to grow more self-destructively devout. Emaciated, wearing only a loincloth, sleeping in the bathroom, the old man is now trapped in the circular, self-confirming logic of a religious fanatic. The proud delusion that God punishes and rewards according to the quality of his prayers has curdled into a bitter cup of guilt.
This is a complicated and tender exploration of the tragedy of spiritual mania, of living in the endlessly recycled disappointment that “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” But more universally, it’s also a novel about the relationship between a father and son and their sympathy that passeth all understanding. Though he hasn’t prayed or attended church for decades, Josie understands the stickiness of deep devotion. “I’m not so sure faith is a thing that can ever be lost,” he says. “Like every love we have, there’s always remnants deep inside us, in our cells.” Stained by a full spectrum of regrets, Josie has neither the anger nor the superiority of a true apostate, and he knows his own wasted life is no convincing testimony to the advantages of godlessness.
Unlike the tightly focused opening section, the bulk of the novel is discursive and nostalgic — sometimes excessively so. Josie gently tries to prod his father toward medical attention and to get the cluttered, cat-filled house in order. “How did I get here?” he wonders. “What exactly was the trajectory that followed from my brief career as a prophet?” Set in the weirdly timeless atmosphere of a sickroom, it’s a difficult plot to carry off — some light nursing care, some small talk, a few intense confrontations — but it’s marked by a number of affecting moments as Josie scrutinizes his father’s possessions, pawing through memories of his Jesus-freak adolescence, trying to understand how faith and shame and pride had bent his family into its peculiar shape.
These circumstances are strange and extreme, to be sure, but Josie’s pained confession is nondenominational. “I ran from Dad,” he says. “I ran from his insistence I was special, from his compulsive and overwhelming need to believe, from his very blood, which of course I couldn’t get away from, no matter where I went.” What could be more intoxicating, what could deliver a higher high or a scarier fall than the person you love most passionately declaring that “this special boy would be nothing less than kingly”? Even if angels attend your birth in a manger, that’s a cross to bear.
The final section of “High As the Horses’ Bridles” makes another surprising jump in both form and time. In fact, the distinct opening and closing sections are so good as to suggest that Cheshire may be a better short story writer than he is a novelist. On the other hand, there’s something daring and brilliant about this disorienting postlude set in Kentucky in 1801. Far from the story of Josie and his father, it casts that main story in a new and haunting light. Here, Cheshire captures the anguish that has always driven people of faith — or no faith — toward the unbridled promise of a time when “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.”
No matter what you believe, fiction writing that delivers us to a moment like that is something of a miracle.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
HIGH AS THE HORSES’ BRIDLES
By Scott Cheshire
Henry Holt. 304 pp. $26