A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow, $24.99
Conflict is at the heart of great literary writing. To have good conflict, a story needs a really good villain, someone mean but with a strong appeal too. In the charismatic preacher Carson Chambliss, novelist Wiley Cash has created a near-perfect villain. When Chambliss takes over the French Broad Church of Christ, he brings a new name: River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following. He brings a new game too, snake handling. Soon the congregants of the little mountain church in the far western North Carolina town of Marshall are signing hymns to the accompaniment of rattling rattlesnakes.
To some of the church members, like Adelaide Lyle, Chambliss is more threatening than his reptilian pets. After a church member is bitten on the face by a copperhead during a service, Adelaide watches helplessly as the preacher and his flock gather around the woman and pray instead of getting her an ambulance. The woman dies. “After that I understood that my church wasn’t no place to worship the Lord in, and I realized I couldn’t stay.”
Others are less perceptive. Like Julie Hall, the pretty young wife of tobacco farmer Ben Hall, who sees something in the church and in Chambliss that has been missing in her life. Julie and Ben are the parents of two sons: Christopher, 13, who is autistic and mute and is called “Stump” by everyone, and Jess, 9, who is one of the main narrators of the story.
“I followed Joe Bill farther down the riverbank than we’d ever gone before. We stopped at the bridge and came up a new path from the river through the bright morning sunlight and crossed the road through the woods to the other side. We walked along the railroad tracks where you could smell the dusty ties getting baked dry in the heat, and then we went into the trees and crawled through briars and over rotten limbs and didn’t say a word to each other until we stood in the shade on the edge of the woods and stared across the field at the back of the church,” Jess observes.
As Julie gets more and more involved with Chambliss’ church, her fixation becomes a wedge between her and Ben. He is not a believer but respects religion. Soon Julie is too involved with the church and with Chambliss. When the two boys see something they shouldn’t, there are tragic consequences. Blinded by her own faith, Julie drags Stump along to the church where he to be “healed.”
The deadly consequences of Stump’s healing bring the sheriff, Clem Barefield, into the story. The careworn lawman has suffered tragedy in his own life, a loss that is linked to the Hall clan. The sheriff is another of the book’s main narrators, his laconic voice full of the hickory smoke and whitewater poetry of mountain people. Barefield’s grandfather was a sheriff in another county.
“My daddy was an apple farmer in Flat Rock over in Henderson County. I reckon I grew up thinking I had to be like one of them, and I suppose I chose right. Serve and protect, I thought. That kind of thinking is what brought me up into these mountains. When I was sworn in as sheriff I replaced Jack Moseley, who was just fifty-seven years old, not an old man by any means, but maybe that’s just my own thinking after turning sixty myself. Before I took this job I asked Jack why he was leaving it, and he told me that he’d just gotten bored. He said didn’t much ever happen up here in Madison County, nothing much exciting anyway,” the sheriff muses.
In a bit of foreshadowing, the sheriff describes how unique Madison County and its people are and how he’d tell old Jack Moseley if he could that he hadn’t been bored after 25 years, even if some of the calls he’d answered were routine. “On the other hand, I’ve had those couple of cases that I won’t ever be able to forget no matter how hard I try or how old I get to be. This here is one of those.”
And it is. Cash moves the plot along quickly, setting the scene for confrontation and providing it. His lyric descriptions of the land and people don’t obscure the issue of the limits of belief that underlie the plot. And in Chambliss, Cash has created one of the great villains of recent times, a kind of back country Torquemada.
Each narrator speaks in past tense, but as the plot develops from speaker to speaker, the story seems to occur in present tense. Cash carefully shepherds his plot along, building tension in first one viewpoint, then another until the tale reaches a shattering conclusion. It’s hard to believe a novel so polished and complete is a first book, but it is. Cash is working on a second novel, but he may find his own first book a hard act to follow.