There is a lot of used-to-be in Wiley Cash’s sophomore novel, This Dark Road to Mercy. Wade Chesterfield used to be a baseball player, used to be a husband and used to be a father. But he went oh-for three and now, as a guy who used to hang drywall and is on the run, he is mostly a crook.
Bobby Pruitt had been a ballplayer too, but his damaged youth led him in a dark direction, and now he is an enforcer for a local thug. He would like to apply his professional skills to Wade, not only in service of his current employer, but as personal payback for something Wade had done to him on the ballfield. He presents a clear and present danger not only to Wade but to his family.
Brady Weller used to be a police detective, but after he was involved in an event that left a boy dead, he became an installer of home security systems, working for his brother-in-law. There is more going on with Brady, though. He is also a court-appointed guardian to children in need of such protection in Gastonia, North Carolina. This includes two young girls.
Easter Quillby hasn’t been around long enough yet to have much in her rear-view. But more than most pre-teens. Wade had surrendered custody of her and her little sister, Ruby, a few years back, and mom died recently of a drug overdose. Have a nice childhood. She and Ruby live in a state-run orphanage.
Writing in the voice of a child has its risks and rewards. Children often lack the power of reflection that adults possess, so their narratives can charge forward without the breaks of reflection or evaluation. Adults are more cautious, especially about what they divulge. If a child is an unreliable narrator it’s probably because he or she doesn’t fully understand what he or she is talking about. If an adult is an unreliable narrator then it means that he or she is hiding something. But child narrators also offer a challenge in terms of their emotional make-up. Their reactions to tragedies great and small are often displayed in similar ways. A young child’s reaction to the death of a pet can be similar to the reaction to the death of a family member. With that in mind, you have to be very careful about how you portray a child’s emotional scale. You want the reader to be able to intuit its depth even if the child’s reaction doesn’t reflect it. – Cash ,in an interview with Crime Fiction Lovers
Easter, Brady and Pruitt are the three alternating narrators through whose eyes we see the events in Cash’s tale. We see Wade mostly through Easter’s eyes.
The action of the novel consists of Wade re-entering the girls’ lives after years of absence, snatching his daughters to join him as he flees dark elements in Gastonia, Pruitt pursuing Wade do him harm, and Brady trying to protect the girls. There are white-knuckle moments in this chase.
One of the true strengths of Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was his portrayal of children. That gift is manifest in full power here. Easter certainly reminds one of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the usual Stephen King pre-ad heroes and heroines. And with a name like Easter you’ve gotta figure she is gonna be reborn someway, somehow. Name a girl Ruby and I expect most of us might think of slippers and “There’s no place like home.” That would make sense here, for a girl who is hoping to have a family again. But it is Easter who will hold your attention and your affection. When there is danger afoot you will really, really want for Easter to be ok. She is not only a tough and decent kid, she is a very well-drawn one, and the best thing about this book
There are several threads (maybe red stitching?) running through The Dark Road…. Baseball figures large. Page 1 introduces Easter on a ballfield. Wade was a professional player, as was Pruitt. And when baseball is in play, one need not look too far to bring in the element of steroids. Wade and Pruitt have a history with them, and one of them still imbibes. And speaking of steroids, the time is 1998, and McGwire and Sosa are engaged in the most famous ‘roid-fueled home run derby of our age. The contest is large in the consciousness of these characters, and a subject of widespread daily conversation in the environments they inhabit. The heavy-hitters’ contest is even used in a very Hitchcockian way to provide a dramatic backdrop for the climax.
The Race is On
Another seam here is parenting. Wade is not a complete screw-up. He may not have made the best choices, and he may not be, exactly, the best person, but he does love his kids, and wants to be a father to them. But abandoning them for several years and snatching them on his way out of town was probably not what a good parent might do. Pruitt’s upbringing comes in for some inspection as well. And Brady copes with having a surly teenager he only gets to see some of the time. Finally, atonement comes in for a look. Wade may be a criminal, but he does want to make up for having left his children. He really wants to make a better life for them. Brady wants to atone for his part in the fatal accident, and does so by acting to protect vulnerable children. Pruitt is more interested in payback than atonement.
Another item you might keep an eye out for is the notion of what’s in a name.
Mom always said that she’d named us what she’d named us because those were her favorite things: Easter was her favorite holiday and rubies were her favorite jewels. Me and ruby used to ask Mom all the time what her other favorite things were, and we’d pretend those things were our names instead…It seems crazy to say we played make-believe like that now, but we used those names so much they almost became real.
Easter has to contend with a real-world decision concerning her name, and there is at least one adult in the story with a temporary alias, and another who has adopted a new name permanently.
Finally, this is a road trip, (it is even in the title) and that usually means a journey of self-discovery. The girls’ fondness for the computer game Oregon Trail foreshadows their later journey with Wade. What will these characters discover, how will they change, grow or wilt on this trip? A Catcher in the Rye mention does let us know there is some of coming of age going on. The girls are looking for a family. Pruitt is looking for revenge and Brady is looking for redemption. Wade is looking for some sort of gateway to a Promised Land.
”Oklahoma, Texas? California?” His eyes got bigger as he listed the names. “We could keep going clear on to the Pacific Ocean if we wanted to.”
“Then what?” I asked. “We can’t live in this car forever.”
“I don’t know,” Wade said again. “I guess that’s why they call it an adventure.”
This is an engaging and fast-paced story. A pretty fair read. I do have some gripes of course. While the attempt for a North by Northwest moment was ambitious, it was not fully realized. Of course by then you have already enjoyed 95 percent of the book so it is not a huge issue. I still read Stephen King and I usually do not much care for his endings either. I did feel that some decisions made by characters here were stage-managed a bit too much. Why such and like has to take place here and then might fit into the author’s desire for the most dramatic possible setting, but did not make all that much sense to me as something the characters would actually do. There are also some convenient events that are inserted into the story to prepare one for the finale. It seemed to me that these were artificial and a bit jarring. Fine, whatever. It’s still a pretty good read, and those elements might not make your Spidey senses tingle the way they did mine.
This Dark Road to Mercy is indeed dark, but illuminated. There is plenty of road to contrast with a desire for home, and sufficient dollops of mercy to soothe sundry pains. This road is one worth taking.
This review was posted on January 28, 2014 – the day the book was published
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
Interview in Crime Fiction Lovers – this is the source of the writer’s comments on writing kids quoted in the review