In the harrowing opening scene of Wiley Cash’s compelling first novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” the minister at the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following takes up a copperhead, prays over it and hands it to an elderly church member, who holds it “like a baby” to show the strength of her faith. The snake strikes her twice, the second time sinking its fangs into her hand so deeply that the preacher and two deacons have to pry it loose. Thereafter, she’s carried away and left to die alone in the tomato patch behind her house. This is the first, though by no means last, instance in which the charismatic minister, Carson Chambliss, a man with a shady past, turns faith into a deadly weapon.
Like his fellow North Carolinian Ron Rash, Cash adeptly captures the rhythms of Appalachian speech, narrating his atmospheric novel in the voices of three characters: 81-year-old Adelaide Lyle, who represents the moral conscience of the community; the adolescent Jess Hall, who has a dangerous knack for discovering things adults would rather keep hidden; and the middle-aged sheriff Clem Barefield, who has never recovered from a loss he suffered years ago.
“The past will just weigh on you if you spend too much time remembering it,” Barefield observes. “It’s like putting on a pair of heavy waders and stepping out to midriver where the fishing’s best. Those waders will fill with water if you get too deep, and if you’re stupid enough to stay out there a while there ain’t a damn thing you can do to keep from being pulled under.” The sheriff is one of several characters haunted by the past. Jess’s grandfather has for years been so troubled by an event he played a role in that he has simply disappeared, only to reappear just as his grandson’s family faces a terrible test brought on by their link to the minister.
The novel contains plenty of violence, and the worst snake in its pages is not a copperhead. Chambliss is cold-blooded and ruthless. Some town members see right through him, but many, like Jess’s mother, fall for his fiery rhetoric and succumb to certain other charms that the reader may occasionally be hard-pressed to identify.
The story has elements of a thriller, but Cash is ultimately interested in how unscrupulous individuals can bend decent people to their own dark ends, often by invoking the name of God. As Adelaide observes near the end of this impressive debut, “The living church is made of people, and it can grow sick and break just like people can.”
Yarbrough’s most recent novel is “Safe from the Neighbors.”
A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME
By Wiley Cash
Morrow. 309 pp. $24.99