Kent Wascom’s “The Blood of Heaven” is the kind of bold, brilliant debut we can forgive for also being convoluted and unwieldy. It’s the work of a young writer with tremendous ambition, a bildungsroman of religion and revolution set during an obscure chapter of American history. Although Wascom can’t always control every aspect of his story, he creates a first-
person narrator who speaks with fire-breathing eloquence, tormented by God and the Devil and equally conversant with both.
He leads with a good right hook: “Tonight I went from my wife’s bed to the open window and pissed down blood on Royal Street.” This is Angel Woolsack speaking, unloosing a blood-dimmed tinkle on the heads of a New Orleans crowd celebrating Louisiana’s secession from the Union in 1861. This isn’t the beginning of the story but the end: the last crass act of a one-armed, half-blind, dying old slave merchant who by his own description is the embodiment of evil.
“I have rendered man, woman, and child unto the Lord with shot, stick, knife, hanging rope, and broken glass, but I have delivered many more with the voice I keep coiled down deep in my withered throat, and with such expedience as would make the crashing bullet weep and the knife blade, imperceptible in its sharpness, strike dull.”
Angel proceeds to tell us just how he became who he is. The story proper begins in 1799, when he’s a teenager and sets out with the man he calls “Preacher-
father” to evangelize Upper Louisiana, as well as set up a community. He’s been raised to know the taste of hell; he speaks with a lisp because his father punishes him by forcing him to suck on a hot coal. Despite that, he also has a gift for preaching and a sense of religious mission.
Father and son soon become friends with the Kempers, a mercantile family with three sons, whose existence is a matter of historical fact. Angel becomes especially close to Samuel, who is 10 years his senior. After a violent confrontation between Angel and his father, Angel and Samuel flee the community and eventually join with up with another Kemper brother, Reuben. Over the years that follow, Angel meets the love of his life, Red Kate, at a whorehouse, and he and Samuel join up with a preacher who sells and re-sells the same slaves. They also become involved in what history books call the Kemper Rebellion, during which the brothers attempt in 1804 to wrest a disputed region of West Florida from Spanish control.
In Wascom’s retelling, Angel’s fervid imagination sees West Florida in Old Testament terms, as a future holy land where he and Red Kate will serve as a veritable Solomon and Sheba. He’s a man of God who dispatches God’s enemies: “All of them were Amalekites, Hittites, Amorites, and Philistines, to be overcome on the way to the Promised Land.” But the fact that Angel sees himself as a master of his own fate only makes him a tool for men who are smarter and cannier. When the West Florida adventure fails, he gets suckered into Aaron Burr’s alleged effort to stage a revolution and set up his own independent nation.
A man increasingly driven by his own lordly ambitions, Angel is annoyed by people who get in his way, and he’s deadly to the very real enemies he makes in the process. He also has a tormented relationship with God, whose existence he doubts but whom he can’t forswear. Religion is both a curse and an antagonizing force that spurs him forward.
“The Blood of Heaven” can at times be hard to follow, in keeping perhaps with Angel’s transient nature. Characters, real and invented, filter in with little to establish them in a reader’s mind; locales shift in a moment’s notice; Angel’s mind is frequently abuzz with flashbacks; and the grand picture isn’t always clear. I found myself wishing the ghost of Gore Vidal were on hand to tighten a few bolts.
But even when the story staggers, Wascom writes with a fire-breathing, impassioned eloquence. Angel’s voice compels our trust from the beginning and echoes all the ghosts of the dark Southern past.
Welch is the book reviewer for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN
By Kent Wascom
Grove. 457 pages. $25