You’ve met Easter Quillby before, but I couldn’t say exactly where.
The 12-year-old heartbeat of Wiley Cash’s feel-good thriller, “This Dark Road to Mercy,” Easter is a tough, self-sufficient child of small-town North Carolina who can dish up SpaghettiOs for herself and her 6-year-old sister, Ruby, when no adults are around to make dinner. Easter’s favorite computer game is Oregon Trail; she has definite opinions about “Entertainment Tonight’s’’ Mary Hart (not all of them favorable); and she wants someday to go to college so that she can join the FBI.
Perhaps you met Easter before in the person of Jess Hall, the resilient 9-year-old North Carolinian at the wheel of Cash’s debut novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” whose like-minded protectiveness toward a vulnerable sibling is also upstaged by a divining rod for troublesome situations.
As in that earlier book, Cash divvies his narrative responsibilities between his youthful protagonist and two other characters of contrasting ages and moral compasses. And once again the kid steals the show, albeit by default, since she is surrounded by cut-and-paste composites of B-movie heroes and bullies.
Easter and Ruby’s nominal existence with their divorced, addicted mother comes to an alarming halt when mom pops one pill too many and is left to die by her companion.
Suddenly, the sisters find themselves beset by guys who, with one exception, may not have their best interests in mind: their missing-in-action dad, Wade, a failed minor-league baseball player-turned-crook who appears out of the blue after three years to claim his daughters; Brady, an ex-cop and detective who has been appointed the girls’ guardian; and Pruitt, a strip-joint bouncer who has an ax to grind with Wade and is just the sort of thug who might actually grab an ax if it were the only score-settling implement in reach.
The one exception is Marcus, Easter’s sort-of-maybe boyfriend, who shares Wade’s habit of sneaking in through her bedroom window. Despite his affection for Easter, Marcus is powerless to intercede when Wade arrives to spirit the girls away from their foster home, initiating a zigzagging road trip from Myrtle Beach to St. Louis that has Brady, Pruitt, and Easter’s would-be future employer, the FBI, on their tails.
There are enough elements in place for a capable cat-and-mouse thriller, but a nagging sense of been-there-done-that shadows pursuers and pursued alike. As petty thieves and kidnappers go, Wade is one of those likable shmoes with a propensity for reckless choices: His heart is in the right place, and it is only a matter of time before Easter will cast off her resentment of his late-blooming father love.
As foils go, Brady is another in that indefatigable chorus line of noir-fiction crimebusters whose careers were stalled out by a fatal move and are seeking a road to redemption.
Multiple-narrator novels demand a certain hamminess on the part of the writer, a facility for the tour de force, hat-changing act that is missing in Cash’s rotation between his three chroniclers Easter, Brady, and Pruitt, who take on a homogeneity in the self-conscious attempt to embellish plainspoken characters with literary flourishes.
Efforts to endow the novel’s resident lummox Pruitt with literary nuance fall flat. (“The room, and maybe the entire house,” asserts the thug before bashing someone with a baseball bat “smelled like something I couldn’t quite place, but it was something that seemed familiar, something on the front end of a memory.”)
Even the leathery matter-of-factness of Easter, the book’s most authentic voice, is vulnerable to the inconsonantly precious touch. She and Ruby call each other “Boston Terrier” and “Purple Journey,” nicknames that are thrown away almost as quickly as they are introduced. The children’s short attention span exemplifies the slapdash affectations of a genre novel trying to sport britches much too big for its modest frame.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at jan.stuart7@