Wiley Cash says he’s a big fan of Thomas Wolfe, a fellow western North Carolinian. So, it’s not surprising that the title of his first novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” comes from Wolfe’s posthumously-published “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Cash’s publishers call his debut a literary thriller and coming-of-age novel, so it seems that Cash traipses along some of the same territory explored by his literary hero under the guidance of editor Maxwell Perkins.
Cash’s novel is woven together from the narratives of three characters, 9-year-old Jess, elderly Adelaide Lyle, and Sheriff Clem Barefield, and tells the story of Jess after the mysterious death of his autistic, 13-year-old brother in the mountains around Marshall, N.C., in 1986.
The primary suspect is Carson Chambliss, a pastor with a criminal past who leads his followers in faith-healing based on the biblical verses from Mark 16:17-18. They dare death by handling deadly snakes and drinking poisons; they lay healing hands on folks to drive out their demons. “We’re all in need of some kind of healing,” Chambliss says.
After one of those healings years ago, an elderly woman died, but her death could never be directly connected to the church, since her body was dumped in her own garden. But now, Jess’s brother Christopher has died, and Jess may have been a witness. Adelaide, who is deeply mistrustful of Chambliss, has tried to protect the children from him following the woman’s death. She considers Chambliss “the face of evil.” Eventually, she finds herself part of Barefield’s investigation. Soon, accident, betrayal, and violence emerge in a remarkable tale that falters primarily because two of the narrators — Jess and Sheriff Barefield — prove less than credible as characters.
Let’s start with Jess. Nothing in the story suggests that there is anything exceptional about him. His parents certainly aren’t intelligent. Yet, he often narrates with a sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure far beyond what might be expected of a boy his age.
As he tells his story, Jess speaks, at times, in very long and complex sentences, dotted with language surprisingly literary or formal: In one scene he sees not a shadow but a “silhouette thrown up against a wall right beside mine”; elsewhere his eyes “adjust” to the dark when we would expect them to just get used to it. The “singing of the crickets” sounds like “scratching a spoon across a clean dinner plate.” A frog’s voice sounds like a “loose banjo string,” and “water gurgling in the creek can sound like people talking.”
All this from a kid who also says things like “You can’t say nothing to nobody” and “Me and Joe Bill were skipping rocks.”
Writing from a child’s viewpoint is difficult, which makes Jess’s implausible language seem less egregious than the inconsistencies in Barefield’s voice. Sometimes Barefield talks like a good ol’ boy; other times he lapses into a kind of poetic diction. It’s hard to believe that the same man who says, “And then I get to thinking. This one’s on you, Clem. You ain’t got nobody else to blame but yourself” is the same one who thinks, “In my mind that barn’s still a burned-out spectacle set against a darkening sky.” Country boy Barefield “walked a piece up the road” and, talks about a coonhound that “howled like the dickens.” Yet, earlier, he muses, “[T]he fire was slowly burning itself out and the field was already full of inky silhouettes moving against the darkness.”
Despite the shortcomings, Cash is a promising author whose writing is at times resonant and convincing. And he’s an intriguing storyteller. But as Wolfe needed his Perkins, Cash must find his, either within or without.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@joseph
peschel.com or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/Have