Twelve-year-old Easter Quillby's earliest memory of her father was watching him, from a distance, play baseball. When she was 9, Wade Chesterfield (she calls him "Wade," not "Dad") abandoned Easter, her younger sister Ruby, and their mom, Corinne. Three years later, when Corinne dies from a drug overdose, the girls are placed in a foster home. But Wade, who had forfeited parental rights, soon reappears in town to steal back his daughters. It's fitting that the ex-minor leaguer finds them on a softball diamond.
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This all happens in the first few pages of "This Dark Road to Mercy," Wiley Cash's new fast-paced novel set in Gastonia, N.C., where he grew up. But what begins as a tale of a father's reunion with his children is, Cash hints early on, more complicated.
Wade Chesterfield is at the heart of the story, which is told (like Cash's debut "A Land More Kind Than Home") in three voices, each seeking Wade for a different reason. Easter (who has her mother's last name) is the moral compass of the tale — old enough to remember the hurt her father caused, but young enough to remain hopeful about his role in her life. Then there's Brady Weller, the girls' court-appointed guardian and a former cop, haunted by a tragic misstep from his past. Finally, there's the wildly violent Pruitt, an ex-con bounty hunter nursing an old grudge against Wade from back in their minor-league days.
A lot of plot is packed into this short novel. Wade kidnaps his girls from their foster home in the middle of the night, taking them on the road with him with no visible plan. Brady steps out of his role as guardian, reconnecting with his old buddy in the police force and immersing himself in an investigation involving Wade, hoping to bring the girls home safely. Pruitt, angry and wild, hunts Wade; not just for his finder's-fee, but to exact revenge. The three storylines (and narrators) collide in a pivotal scene toward the end of the novel at — where else? — a baseball stadium.
But despite its juicy elements — abandonment, mystery, a cross-country police chase — set against the all-American backdrop of baseball, the novel fails to deliver on its most promising theme: a renewed bond between father and daughter.
Cash has a knack for flow and dialogue, and his spare, simple prose keeps the story moving steadily. What's missing, though, are the details that could make the characters and places come to life. Scenes are sketched lightly. We see hints of poverty — the book is set close to the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Appalachia — but could use more specifics.
"This Dark Road to Mercy" unfolds during the summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to break the home-run record, but the pages don't contain many other markers of the late '90s. The story, like the game of baseball, seems to belong to a bygone era.
And despite a rich premise, Cash fails to let the emotional turmoil of the girls' circumstances fully resonate. The story rushes from scene to scene, raising more questions than it answers. How often was Wade gone, and what kind of father was he when he was around? Why did he decide to return to Gastonia? What had he been doing in the meantime? What kind of mother was Corinne? Corinne, who must have been the dominant force in the girls' lives, is barely mentioned after her sudden death. Another character, young Easter's schoolgirl crush, seems important early on but quickly vanishes.
Cash might have benefited from sticking to one perspective: Easter's. In bringing in the voices of Brady Weller and Pruitt, the story feels filtered down. And while Brady's character is complex and sympathetic, Pruitt, a brute, comes off as a gangster cliche. The tone is off balance: out of its 34 chapters, only seven are in Pruitt's voice, while 15 are narrated by Easter.
Cash's first novel was widely praised; some even dubbed him a new rising star of the South. In this newer work, he clearly aims to tell a heartfelt and nuanced story, exploring the lines between fear and trust, redemption and love. Unfortunately, these boundaries are examined lightly.
Easter is less naive than a 12-year-old ought to be; still, she forgives her father for disappearing. The crucial moments of father-daughter bonding that might lead her to that conclusion, however, depend on the reader's imagination.
Hope Reese, a writer and editor in Louisville, has contributed to several publications including The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, the Harvard Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
"This Dark Road to Mercy"
By Wiley Cash, William Morrow, 240 pages, $25.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun