Miracles and Mirages
A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow; 320 pages; $24.99).
Charles Manson. Jim Jones. David Koresh. Carson Chambliss. That last name may not be as familiar to you as the other names of famous and frighteningly real cult leaders are. Chambliss, the fictitious pastor of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, runs a small backwoods congregation in rural North Carolina in Wiley Cash’s powerful, taut debut novel A Land More Kind than Home. Like Manson, Jones, and Koresh, Chambliss’s followers will do absolutely anything for him; Chambliss’s congregation speak in tongues, handle snakes, and even kill for their leader.
Not everyone is drinking Chambliss’s kool-aid, though. Adelaide “Addie” Lyle, former church member, mid-wife, and one of the narrators of Cash’s novel, knows all too well just what her ex-pastor is capable of. Addie has seen people “pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people too. God-fearing folks that hadn’t ever acted like that a day in their lives.” Chambliss, Addie says, convinces them that it is “safe to challenge the will of God” and makes them feel it is “all right to take that dare if they” believe.
An incident that occurred years previously prompted Addie to take the children out of the church and teach them at her home instead every Sunday. Curiously, Chambliss agreed to this. Since she birthed these children, Addie feels like she has a right to their spirits. Cash employs streams of consciousness to get the reader inside Addie’s head. The effect is compelling and highly readable. But Addie is not alone in her distrust of her ex-pastor.
Sheriff Clem Barefield, another narrator, knows Chambliss is a man of secrets and lies. One of the pastor’s hands is severely burned. The sheriff knows the damage occurred from a meth lab explosion that not only injured the pastor but also killed a missing girl. Chambliss required extensive skin grafts, but his hand is severely disfigured. Chambliss, of course, explains that it was “God’s will.”
The skin grafts help explain Chambliss’ fascination, or rather obsession, with snakes. The rattles and shed skins of serpents adorn Chambliss’s barn in a frightening fashion. Chambliss collects them and likes to think the skins “remind us that we can change into something new.” Sheriff Barefield explains the pastor’s interest best, as snakes “shed skin, men shed skin.” Skin “grows back” in some cases, but “sometimes it gets grafted on,” as in the case of Chambliss.
The sheriff has more pressing concerns than snakes, though. Nine-year-old Jess Hall is Cash’s third and final narrator. His brother, Stump, is mute and has been since birth. The boys’ mother attends Chambliss’s church and is a loyal follower. But the boys’ father is no fan of the pastor or of religion.
The boys see something they are not supposed to see. Their transgression puts Stump particularly on Chambliss’s radar. The pastor calls Stump to services and believes he can “cure” the boy of his affliction. So do the congregation and Stump’s mother.
Cash’s characters have little or no education. Some can be unapologetically ignorant but always real. Their lack of intelligence makes them highly susceptible to a man like Chambliss. Those who attend the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following are easily led. They believe everything Chambliss tells them, and they blindly follow his orders, whatever they may be.
Cash sets his story in his home state of North Carolina. He peoples his book with backwoods types, hillbillies even. There is an authenticity to his characters. Cash peppers his prose with “reckons,” “ain’ts,” and “fixin’ to’s.” He writes them as they really are, and the story is better because of it. His characters believe in tobacco, hard work, God, and Chambliss, but not necessarily in that order. The atmospheric quality to his writing brings to mind Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Cormac McCarthy.
A Land More Kind than Home is filled with tension. Chambliss is not a narrator of the story, yet, in my mind, he stands out. He is all the more menacing and dangerous when he stands on the periphery of this tale. Cash never lets us inside his head; instead, Chambliss and his true intentions are unknowable. This reader was drawn to Chambliss’s character; he is mesmerizing.
There is an inevitability to this tale. From as early as page one, the reader knows things will not end well. The beauty is seeing where Cash will take his characters and us.
Most beautiful of all, though, is when Jess warns us that miracles are often like mirages in the desert: “I thought about what a mirage must look like in the desert after you’ve gotten yourself lost and you ain’t had nothing to drink and are just about ready to die. I reckon at that point your mind can trick you into seeing just about anything it wants you to see.” Too bad most of the adults in this novel are not as sage as this nine-year-old boy.