I’ve often wondered how many people quote Thomas Wolfe in their books. Either the title or some dedication or other such thing. Seems to be a trend. I’ve never been a huge Wolfe fan, though I’ll admit a deep love of both the grave marker and the title of Look Homeward Angel and the John Milton poem he quotes for it. “Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth: And O Ye dolphins waft the hapless youth.” (Lycidas 163-164) But, I digress even before I begin.
Wiley Cash’s first novel bears a title that comes from the Wolfe’s pen. “Something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth”—You Can’t Go Home Again.
This is a story told by three different narrators; a young boy, the sheriff and an older woman. Their voices are as familiar to me as my own family perhaps because Cash does an excellent job of capturing the Madison County speech and heart. He does so with all of the characters but particularly with the female narrator, the turn of whose phrases feel like comfortable, well worn paths in the memories of my father’s people.
The narrative centers around the events at a small store-front church in Marshal, NC. The first sign that something is happening there that shouldn’t be is the fact that the windows are covered over with newspaper so no one can see inside. This is what is often called a ‘snake-handling church’, however it is more than this practice that makes it into something quite unlike a church at all. The pastor, Carson Chambliss, is a holy man with a messiah complex as dangerous as a pit of rattlesnakes. At his church there is a fine line between being saved and being lost; healing and death. A fine and blurry line. Along with Pastor Chambliss there are Ben and Julie, their two children Jess and Christopher, their alcoholic and violent grandfather Jimmy, Sheriff Clem Barefield who’s memory of the son he lost some years before returns with force, and the Sunday school teacher and midwife Adelaide. These make up the cast of this southern gothic small mountain town epic.
As things start to go wrong at the church with an unfortunate accidental death of an older parishioner due to a snake bite, Addie decides that the only thing she can do in the face of this dangerous situation is to get the children out of the worship service. She becomes an enemy of Chambliss then, as does anyone who contradicts him and his borderline black magic power disguised as Christian faith. Chambliss and some of his church members seem more like mafia thugs than anything else but his charismatic personality seems to draw people into his spell. Especially a wife distanced from her husband and desperate to find some healing for her son’s disability.
In one way the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ of this novel seem easily distinguishable and underlined in bright, broad strokes, but in another, not so much. Storms and other weather activities provide the obvious backdrop to increased tension and the heightening of conflict. Chambliss, surrounded by snakes and half covered in burns, is clearly the bad guy and there’s not much of anything redeemable about him. Addie is equally clearly the good woman put in a bad place and trying her best to fight the evil the only way she can. So, too, is this true of the Sheriff and the vulnerable brothers, Jess and Christopher, who seem to be basically good despite difficulties and challenges. And yet, there are other characters here that are far more ambiguous. Jimmy Hall, far and away my favorite character, is one of those who we expect to see a certain way in a black and white world but who may not be purely either one.
For the record, I have no idea why Jimmy is my favorite character. There isn’t any good reason for it. He just is. Perhaps it is because there is, amid a whole lot of waste, voilence and regretable choices, something that is redeemable and hopeful. When I read a good story, I sometimes wonder who the story is really about. Good stories are not always truly about the main characters and this book in particular is ambiguous as to who the “main” character or characters actually are in the first place. But maybe it is Jimmy who is looking for a land more kind than home.
I definitely recommend this book. It is not what I would call light summer reading by any means, but it is well worth the time and emotion to read it! I would probably never have noticed it had it not been for the recommendation of someone else, and for that I am grateful. It is a good, solid first novel and I look forward to seeing what Wiley Cash will write in the future.
+As a seperate aside for any pastors or church leaders who might be reading this review: I highly recomend this as a cautionary tale. It is a good example of a pastoral ego out of control and the evil (and I do mean evil) that can be wrought by it. While we would like to think that this is fiction and would never happen in a church we know, especially if our congregations don’t do anything as extreem as incorporating snakes in worship as a test of faith, we are fooling ourselves if we do not recognize the true source of danger here as not a serpent but a human being.