UNCA grad’s novel reveals snake in the grass
by Rob Neufeld
(Author photo by Kevin Millard)
Adelaide Lyle, an 82-year-old, compassionate Christian woman lays down her account of her confrontation with Curtis Chambliss, a criminal-turned-snake-handling-pastor.
Sheriff Clem Barefield, an old soul with a large loss, relates his pursuit of justice in a voice that would suit Tommy Lee Jones. In one scene, the sheriff dons a cowboy hat just before going into a fray.
Jess, a nine-year-old dreamer at the eye of disaster, tells of his loving relationship with his mute, autistic older brother, nicknamed Stump; and what befell Stump and their family in the course of a week.
“I watched a hot breeze come across the field and move through the high grass on its way to us,” Jess notes as he and his friend, Joe Bill, sneak up on Chambliss’ church to spy on what was happening to Stump inside.
The breeze is a sign. Storm clouds approach, literally and figuratively.
Cash lays out a mostly chronological story scene by scene with the dramatic color that makes Pat Conroy’s novels sing. Keen to natural forces and original sin—primarily, false prophecy and rage—Cash gives voice to witnesses who ponder how much they should and can mess with fate.
“Dear, sweet Mallory, my wife, best friend, and first reader” Cash writes in his acknowledgements, “I began this novel the year we met, and I finished it the year we married; it’s yours as much as mine.”
He began it at graduate school at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he studied with Ernest Gaines, who encouraged him to write about his home region, Western North Carolina.
“The novel’s three narrators,” Cash reveals, “all represent my experience of growing up in North Carolina and being raised in an evangelical church.”
While the misuse of religion is a deadly evil in “A Land More Kind than Home,” essential mountain Baptist culture is a fertile source of renewal, good living, and imagination.
“If you know your Bible,” Pastor Chambliss instructs Miss Lyle, “then you should know it says that when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.”
“You ain’t no Jesus,” Miss Lyle responds. “And Christopher (Stump’s given name) didn’t have no demon in him. He was born that way; I was there when he came into the world, and I can tell you God makes us how he needs us to be.”
At another point, she attests, “You show me a woman who calls herself a Christian up in these parts and I’ll show you a woman who knows how to heal.”
Healing has many meanings. Miss Lyle’s is down-to-earth sensible.
You’d have to call “A Land More Kind than Home,” a symbolic novel, not because its meanings are allegorical, but because its vocabulary resonates with: snakes, regeneration, fire, muteness, blood, and witnessing.
Although Cash is just telling a good story, some of his characters are intentionally symbolic.
Jess witnesses a shirtless Chambliss, sees a burn scar extending from Chambliss’ right hand to his chest, and later asks his Mama, “How’d it get that way?”
“Would you believe that once upon a time,” she responds, “back before the Holy Ghost got ahold of him, Pastor Chambliss was on fire for the world and the things of this world burned him up?”
Yes, if by “things of this world,” you mean a meth lab explosion.
Thriller with no filler
Readers and writers will find Cash’s novel to be a great example of a literary thriller. Every part is used to allow elements other than plot to weigh in.
Sense of place takes you to a hamlet with one store, tobacco fields, a few houses, including one on a mountain, and a church with newspaper-covered windows.
Character relationships are all engaging: Miss Lyle and the evil pastor; Jess and his 11-year-old friend, Joe Bill, whose 15-year-old older brother bullies him; Jess and each other member of his family; Jess and his late-appearing grandpa, Jimmy Hall; and the sheriff’s reckoning with that man.
There are only a couple of places where Cash wrenches the plot to take plausibility leaps. He knows how a thriller works.
Once, it happens in a sub-plot, which means it has other intentions than plot fulfillment.
The sheriff recalls a man allowing his tobacco-filled barn to be burned down because Chambliss had said a demon had leapt out of the body of a girl he was healing, and had run in there.
That gets you thinking, “Would a man do that?”
Within the countdown to violence, Cash lets his characters’ minds wander naturally. Miss Lyle and the sheriff get to telling old tales. Jess ends up anywhere.
After a big family trauma, when Jess’s grandpa suggests catching fireflies as a distraction, Jess day-dreams a long reflection on catching fireflies with his brother.
“Sometimes I’d get down on my knees on the other side of the bed and look through the Mason jar at Stump’s face,” he recalls.
“He’d kneel there by the bed like he was praying and wait for the lightning bug to glow, and when it did I could just barely see him smiling through the glass with that yellow light spread out across his cheeks.”
One of the achievements of “A Land More Kind than Home” is showing how well the thriller novel and farm-town Baptist world views mix.
About Wiley and UNCA
Wiley Cash has a local cheering squad. He attained his B.A. in creating writing from UNCXA.
David Hopes, who had taught Cash in a playwriting class at UNC Asheville, recalls his glad surprise at seeing Cash, the capable president of the student body, reveal a gift at rendering true mountain speech in his work.
Hopes, in fact, got to try out the young author’s dialogue when he acted in a drama that Cash had written, playing a janitor whom a student gets to know.
“The writing was full of remarkable, fine-tuned, touching, local diction,” Hopes says.
Cash also studied with Jeff Rackham, the late UNC Asheville English professor and novelist, and then went on to get a Masters degree from UNC Greensboro; and a PhD from Louisiana State University in Lafayette. His mentor there, Ernest Gaines, “received an honorary degree from UNC Asheville,” Anne Ponder, UNC Asheville Chancellor, notes, “both for his own work and his influence on the next generation of writers including Wiley.”
Cash’s blog about his book tour is available at www.wileycash.com.
A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow hardcover. Apr. 2012, 315 pages, $24.99)
Wiley Cash presents his novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” at:
City Lights Bookstore, 3 East Jackson St., Sylva, 7 p.m., Fri. Call 586-9499.
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 4 p.m., Sat. Call 254-6734.