Books

Unforced Errors: The Trouble with Wiley Cash’s Rushed Second Novel

Not long into Wiley’s Cash’s second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, Easter Quillby—a sage twelve-year-old and the most compelling of the book’s three narrators—and her kid sister, Ruby, find their mother passed out in bed beside a strange man. Their mother wears only “a pair of blue underwear and a big white T-shirt that [has] a picture of Tweety Bird on it.” The table is littered with pills. Upon seeing this, neither child is shocked. They live in a house without a telephone. Their beds are mattresses on the floor. It is, it seems, just another day in Gastonia, North Carolina. When the man comes to in the company of his fellow addict’s children, he grabs the pills and makes a quick exit, claiming he’s off to find help for their mom. As Easter watches him hurry away, she knows he’s not coming back.

The next morning, while Ruby sleeps, Easter checks on their mother:

I knew she was dead right when I opened the door… Her dark hair was covering her face, so I couldn’t tell whether her eyes were open or not, but I didn’t move it out of her face to check because I knew I didn’t want to see… I just stood there looking down at her and went ahead and decided that I wasn’t going to cry, not then anyway. I knew it was more important for me to decide what me and Ruby were going to do next.

Cash’s novel seems set to go. Soon, a shrewd young heroine will embark on a journey through the underbelly of the lower-class South, a world ripe for reflections on poverty and addiction. Add to the equation Wade Chesterfield, the girl’s father, an impetuous, washed-out minor league pitcher, home after a long absence, and I was excited to see where Cash would take us from here. My mind lit on Ron Rash and Chris Offuit. A Southern Gothic with a chase. Winter’s Bone meets No Country for Old Men.

But I was wrong. Instead of a story about a broken family reuniting amid danger and drugs in America’s gritty margins, Dark Road quickly devolves into a predictable cat-and-mouse tale that reaches its end when, after a not-so-thrilling search, a psychopath hell-bent on revenge and a state-appointed guardian both spot Ruby, Easter, and their on-the-lam dad on Busch Memorial’s Jumbotron at the precise moment when Mark McGuire hits the homerun that ties Roger Maris’s record—a homerun, I might add, that Wade nearly catches. (Odds here? About one in 50,000.) This, paired with a short scuffle in a ballpark men’s room, is the book’s climax. Afterward it’s back to jail for the psychopath, and back to work with a surer sense of purpose for the guardian. As for Easter and Ruby, it’s off to, of all places, Alaska, where they’ll start over with their estranged grandparents and, maybe, just maybe, if a note attached to a teddy bear is to be believed, their dear old dad.

When I think about where Dark Road begins and where it ends, I’m flabbergasted. How does a novel go so suddenly from poised-to-excite to totally pat—especially when Cash’s first book, the best-selling A Land More Kind Than Home, was lauded by writers like Bobbie Ann Mason and Ernest Gaines and named a New York Times Notable Book? How could the same author produce a novel so underdeveloped, so unsatisfying?

Cash’s debut, in my eyes, showed promise but wasn’t the knockout other critics made it out to be. His prose is lovely, but the story was heavy-handed and dumbed-down. Cash explains his symbols, and the multiple points of view he employs to build tension tend to make scenes feel dragged out. At its worst the narration feels manipulative, like he’s promised you a hiking trail but stuck you on a treadmill. When it comes to the novel’s supporting cast—a mute, a sleazy preacher, a long-lost grandpa, and a congregation of snake-handlers—I couldn’t help but picture Cash at his desk, throwing darts at a board filled with familiar Southern tropes. Nonetheless, the story was compelling enough, and the writing was heartfelt. Clearly, Cash had poured himself and his considerable talents into the book. The result was a good, if not outstanding, first novel.

What was so different about this one? What made Dark Road seem so underdone, so rushed? But then I realized, that’s just it. The answer was in the question: the book was, quite simply, underdone and rushed. Everyone knows writing a novel takes time. This is particularly true of first novels, which an author might work on for years without even knowing it. First novels often grow from old stories and unfinished ideas that represent huge amounts of work and polish. (Add a new layer to an old story and that story becomes book-length; edit your MFA thesis enough, and a collection of linked shorts becomes a novel.) In piecing together a first book, some authors can pluck the wheat from the chaff of their first few years of serious writing. They can take their favorite and most real characters and turn their focus toward placing them into a broader narrative—which, of itself, is no easy feat.

One might presume that on their second try, an author could learn from their mistakes (in method, in craft) and expedite the process. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes after your first book, you’re wrung dry. The gas in the reserve tanks is emptied. But if your debut was a best-seller, say, in the summer of 2012, and your publisher wanted to capitalize on its success, they’d likely press for a follow-up as fast as possible, say, within about eighteen months, which might force you to scramble like hell to crank out the pages. Whether this is what happened to Cash, I cannot say. But with Dark Road being published in January of this year, it seems a reasonable assumption.

At its core, Dark Road is about Wade Chesterfield’s desire to correct his mistakes, to start over and get fatherhood right. When all is said and done, Wade is a man of good intentions. He knows he’s mistreated his daughters and wants to make up for it. But Wade is cursed by his selfishness, his childishness and, above all, his impulsive nature. In one of the novel’s many examples of underdeveloped backstories, we learn that, toward the end of his minor league days, Wade could be persuaded to pitch beneath his skillset for the right price. In another murky telling, we learn that he signed away his legal rights to his daughters simply because he’d been tricked. More recently, when Tommy Broughton, a bigwig in North Carolina’s “hill-billy Mafia,” hires Wade for an armored car job worth millions (a strain on my suspended disbelief), Wade decides to take the money for himself before stealing his daughters from foster care so they can all run off and make a clean start. All of which would be fine, of course, if not for the book’s two other narrators.

The first is Pruitt: the just-out-of-jail (steroids) former minor leaguer who lost some of his sight and all of his potential when an errant pitch from Wade struck him in the face. Pruitt is Dark Road’s hunter, the hit man hired by Tommy Broughton to capture Wade and deployed by Cash to ratchet up tension. Pruitt is also the character with the most unmet promise to be interesting. In a few of the novel’s rare examples of captivating flashbacks, we learn that Pruitt grew up the son of an abusive and maniacal drunk. (The man makes young Pruitt shatter empty beer bottles for batting practice, and later smashes a coffeepot across his wife’s face.) But Pruitt’s backstory, while humanizing, does not serve as a springboard for meaningful reflection. Any chance for nuance is eschewed, and readers are ultimately left with an all-bad, one-speed murderer who might as well be a robot.

In many ways, Pruitt struck me as a poor man’s Anton Chigurh, the hauntingly stoic hit man in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. While some readers complain that Chigurh is himself too one-dimensional, as I do of Pruitt, what makes Chigurh unique is McCarthy’s careful rendering. Chigurh stands for something greater. He is the evil of this world embodied, its randomness. He flips a coin before he kills; he chuckles with incredulity as his victims beg for their life. Pruitt is without question a man who’s been wronged—by his father, by Wade, by life. He deserves recompense, certainly, but the violence with which he seeks it comes off as contrived.

The final narrator is Brady Weller, the divorced and disgraced former Gastonia detective turned alarm company desk jockey, who probably should have been Dark Road’s protagonist. After Brady accidentally runs over his neighbor’s son (he was buzzed or maybe just exhausted; his culpability remains unclear), Brady’s life seems all but meaningless—that is until a cigar-puffing, good-old-boy judge (the South!) advises him to seek fulfillment (and perhaps redemption) by serving as a Guardian Ad Litem: an advocate for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Brady takes the judge up on his offer and ends up in charge of Ruby and Easter.

In a book filled with characters who seem not quite realized, Brady is the most puzzling—and not because he’s mysterious or complicated. Brady is streaky, inconsistent. He’s flaccid and sheepish in his new life and with his teenage daughter; yet, when he’s faced with Wade’s partner in crime, and his own former police partner, and an FBI agent—all of whom are sick to death of Brady’s meddling—Brady is the man, a confident old pro who knows the score. And while I appreciate that behaviors change at home and at work, the disconnect is too pronounced.

Even harder to make sense of is Cash’s reluctance to explore the guilt and the uncertainty that would consume anyone after being involved in the wrongful death of an innocent child—let alone a cop who’s sworn to protect and serve. Had these emotions been further developed, had we seen Brady meditating on the night of the boy’s death as he weighed the decision to take up the search for Ruby and Easter on his own, we would’ve been more apt to cheer for him when he pulls himself up and finally does it—confiscated badge and sullied reputation be damned. But we don’t. In place of the hard stuff, we get Brady wistfully staring at a photo of his daughter again and again, and it’s just not enough. Instead of a haunted character who wakes up and saves the day, Brady feels more like a wimp who resets the status quo.

I wouldn’t dream of saying Wiley Cash is a bad writer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I admire his prose, and I was impressed by his first novel’s ambition. What I will say is this: Cash is a writer who’s yet to deliver a book that reflects his potential—which is, I think, the most diplomatic thing I can say about This Dark Road to Mercy. It’s a fine, albeit familiar, narrative, but it feels written in haste. Mistakes were made, and they went unfixed. Whether or not A Land More Kind Than Home was, as Clyde Edgerton put it, “A book that will knock your socks off,” it certainly wasn’t filled with hokey dialogue, like when the judge in Dark Road tells Brady,

“You’re used to being the one who gets called to chase down the bad guys, and now you’re spending your time answering the phone when babysitters and cleaning ladies get the police called on them by accident.”

or clunky lines like,

“The cordless phone sat on my desk, and I picked it up and called Sandy’s number at the station.”

or,

“All the parking lots had signs up saying they were full, and we drove away from the stadium, looking for a place to park.”

or clumsy, metaphor-laden passages, like,

“If my work… caused rifts in our marriage, then the night of the accident was like a boulder rolling down a mountain and splashing all the water out of a pond that once upon a time only had little ripples to worry about.”

Errors like these frustrate me because they’re unforced. They’re creases that a writer like Cash could’ve easily ironed out. And yet, in Dark Road, they abound.

In the end, This Dark Road to Mercy leaves me with a lot of questions. I question why the book had to come out so quickly on the heels of Cash’s debut. I question why such a strong writer seems so often to take the easy way out and turn away from his book’s more interesting pathways. I question why someone along the way didn’t insist he could do better. Wiley Cash is a talented writer with great promise, two truths for which both the author and his readership should feel excited. But, as Cash writes his third novel, he needs to make a choice: Does he want to be a Southern writer for the hoi polloi, or does he want to be one of his generation’s great Southern writers? The latter, I believe, is within reach. Cash just has to take his time.

William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | wstorrey@gmail.com.