THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY is the highly anticipated sophomore effort from Wiley Cash, whose first novel, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, was published in 2013 to critical and popular acclaim. While this latest effort is perhaps not as literary as his debut, its edge is more subtle and perhaps a bit sharper while revisiting some of the themes explored by its predecessor --- most notably, the failure of parents --- but from an entirely different perspective.
The novel is told from various different viewpoints that alternate throughout the narrative. Twelve-year-old Easter Quillby and her six-year-old sister are residents of a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina. The narrative reveals in flashback that the girls were placed there following the sudden death of their mother. That event brings Wade Chesterfield, their biological father, back into their lives. Chesterfield is a former minor-league baseball player whose major claim to fame is that he once played on a team with Sammy Sosa. Having not seen the girls for years after signing away his parental rights to their mother, he appears just as they are about to be adopted by their maternal grandparents in Alaska. After failing to get what he wants by conventional means, Chesterfield steals his children away in the dead of night.
"What we have in the end is a wonderfully presented slice of southern gothic that is complete in itself, leaving the reader wanting more of each of the characters --- and much more of Cash himself."
The nervousness that Easter detects on Chesterfield’s part is not due solely to the illegality of his actions. Working as a contractor’s assistant, Chesterfield had discovered the proceeds of an armored car heist hidden in the wall of a house owned by a small-time but very vicious criminal named Tommy Broughton and absconded with a portion of it. Broughton is extremely unhappy about his loss, and assigns an edgy thug named Pruitt to recover “his” money and gain some dark measure of revenge. Pruitt represents to Broughton that he can find Chesterfield and, as is eventually revealed, is very strongly motivated to do so, with reasons that are far beyond any financial compensation that Broughton offers.
The dark horse in this mix is Brady Weller, who is perhaps the book’s most complex character. Weller, whose fall from grace as a husband, father and respected police detective was sudden and fast, works as an installer of home security systems but “moonlights” as a volunteer court-appointed guardian. He is charged with monitoring the care of the Quillby girls, so that when they go missing with Chesterfield, he finds himself going above and beyond the call of duty to trace the whereabouts, utilizing the unofficial aid of his former partner on the force as well as some methods of his own.
Chesterfield, with his daughters in tow, awkwardly meanders his way through the South, across the Carolinas to St. Louis and a date fraught with destiny, as he, Weller and Pruitt come to a potentially dangerous intersection that will irrevocably affect them and the two innocent girls, who are not entirely incapable of acting in their own best interests.
THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY is a one-sit novel for more than one reason. It is a relatively short book, primarily because it is as long as it needs to be and no longer. In lesser hands, this work could have grown to 400 pages or more --- the characters, particularly Weller and Pruitt, are interesting enough to have filled that space --- but it likely would have become unwieldy. Instead, the relatively simple prose flows quickly and shines brightly. What we have in the end is a wonderfully presented slice of southern gothic that is complete in itself, leaving the reader wanting more of each of the characters --- and much more of Cash himself.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 31, 2014
This Dark Road to Mercy