‘Moderation in all things” is not bad advice, but Aristotle never wrote any good Southern gothic novels. In that macabre world, the last thing we want is moderation. Faulkner knew this. (Necrophilia? Check.) Ron Rash knows this. (Pet killer eagle? Check.) And in his first novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” Wiley Cash proved that he knew it, too. (Snake-handling preacher? Check.)
But now, in his second novel, the poetically titled “This Dark Road to Mercy,” Cash seems to have lost his nerve, which is a deadly mistake in these dark woods. All the elements are here for a thrilling drama: imperiled children, a duffel bag full of money and — most important — a disfigured psychopath thirsty for vengeance. But the whole production never generates much heat: a pinch of sentimentality, a touch of suspense, a little off-camera cruelty. This is Cormac McCarthy by way of Sears: “Some Country for Middle-Aged Men.”
That’s regrettable, because Cash knows his way around a good story. As he did in “A Land More Kind Than Home,” he once again gives us several different narrators. Easter Quillby is just 12, but she knows enough to be wary of her errant father, Wade, whose minor league baseball career struck out years ago. Three months after Easter’s mom overdoses in their squalid home, Wade shows up expecting to play daddy:
“Why are you here?” Easter demands.
“I just want to spend some time with you and your sister.”
“You can’t,” Easter tells him. “It’s too late.”
Wade, though, is a man with a dream of fatherhood, no matter how much it might endanger his two daughters. A few nights after reintroducing himself, he climbs through the window of their foster home in Gastonia, N.C., and tells the girls, “We’ve got to go.” You might think that petitioning the family court for custody would be a better plan than this midnight raid, but Wade has no time to start down that complicated legal path. Aside from kidnapping charges, he’s also outrunning an old baseball foe named Pruitt, who’s been hired to recover a stash of money Wade stole from the “hillbilly Mafia.”
The novel’s potentially exciting chase is well designed: Easter is a wise, broken-hearted kid who knows better than to hope for much from the adults in her life; Wade is a lovable fool who thinks he can finally beat his bad luck; and Pruitt, with his weirdly high-pitched voice and steroid-fueled muscles, is a terrifying, implacable assassin. For good measure, they’re all being pursued by the girls’ legal guardian, a sad-sack ex-cop who hopes he can atone for his sins by rescuing Easter and her sister. And all of them are being chased by the FBI. It’s a mad, mad, mad, noir world!
Strangely, for a story with so much momentum, Cash’s best scenes are flashbacks. His description of Easter and her sister finding their mother comatose in bed is swept with crosscurrents of dread and innocence. And Pruitt’s childhood memory of being showered in shattered glass from smashed beer bottles suggests so much about the monster that spawned him.
But this earnest novel seems reluctant to depart from the deeply etched dimensions of its standard plot. Early on, for instance, Cash begins to explore white poverty in a racially mixed neighborhood, but he quickly abandons that complex issue for far more predictable material. In one of the novel’s longest scenes, when some cool kid makes fun of Easter at a boardwalk arcade, we know in our apple-pie-lovin’ bones that Wade will eventually vanquish those punks and win the big stuffed teddy bear for his daughter. “It felt like a movie,” Easter says, perhaps recognizing it from any number of movies we’ve all seen.
That lack of surprise and emotional intensity wears on the story as the chase stretches out to the Midwest. None of these narrators is up to the task of building sufficient tension. Pruitt only hints at his creepier thoughts, drawing a shade over his most heinous actions, which mutes the novel’s horror. And the girls’ dogged guardian is prone to reusing old tea bags like this: “If twenty years as a cop taught me anything it’s that when folks disappear it usually means, one, they’re dead, or two, they don’t want to be found.” Even Easter, for all her spunky, childlike wisdom, doesn’t give us much heartache, and her powers of observation are thin. Seeing the St. Louis Arch for the first time, she says, “It was a huge white half-circle that looked to be sitting in a field off to our right,” which is the least awed description of the country’s tallest monument any child has ever uttered.
Good for Easter; she never gets overexcited. But neither will readers of this novel.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY
By Wiley Cash
Morrow. 232 pp. $25.99