Let's start with the hometown stuff. Wiley Cash grew up in Gastonia and his new novel name-checks all manner of mainstays in the Carolinas.
Lineberger Park and Tony's Ice Cream, the Gastonia Rangers and Sims Park are all here. So, too, are the Carolina Panthers, Wilkinson Boulevard, the late Myrtle Beach Pavilion and the low country of Charleston.
Fear not — Cash is more than a mere conduit sharing a laundry list of familiar places in this part of the world. He tells Southern stories in an authentic, contemporary voice. Cash's debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, won critical kudos.
Now he returns with This Dark Road to Mercy, a ready-made movie adaptation candidate involving a desperate, ne'er-do-well absentee father, two foster children, a baseball road trip and plenty of damaged people. Throw in a thinly veiled reference to the 1997 Loomis Fargo heist and it makes for a fun, harrowing ride.
Cash alternates among three narrators: 12-year-old Easter Quillby, a hit man named Pruitt who's seeking personal revenge and a burned-out former cop named Brady Weller.
Easter and her 6-year-old sister, Ruby, live in a children's home in Gastonia. Their mom died of an accidental drug overdose and their father, former minor-league pitcher Wade Chesterfield, disappeared years ago after the briefest of attempts at parenthood.
Each voice resonates, but none with as much power as Easter.
Here she reflects on the sisters' future after discovering their mom dead:
"There wasn't hardly no food at all. I looked around and realized that we didn't have anything, and I saw what our house really looked like, and I knew how people would think of us when they came inside in a few hours to get Mom and take us away to wherever we'd be going ... And they'd see that me and Ruby didn't have beds but just slept on mattresses on the floor that had mismatched sheets on them."
Cash writes of lower-income life in the South with a sure voice. Easter recalls trips to Bojangles with Ruby and their mom, trips that called for the girls to determine their orders in advance so their mom could count up coins and figure out what she could afford. On other nights, the girls cook SpaghettiOs and eat while watching Entertainment Tonight as their mom sinks into self-induced unconsciousness.
Somehow, little of this feels bleak. Easter and Ruby brim with resilience despite all of the heartbreak they encounter. And a running thread incorporating the summer-long home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brings Bull Durham-style levity (thank God) rather than the Field of Dreams version of baseball. Cash even drops in some steroid chatter in one of the baseball discussions and makes use of Sosa's real-life minor-league stint in Gastonia with what was, at the time, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers.
Brady Weller, struggling to remain relevant to his teen daughter, stares at her picture and recalls a weekend several years earlier spent with Indian Princesses at Camp Thunderbird. He notes the outing "meant that a handful of little girls had spent the weekend together in one cabin, cutting out vests from huge rolls of felt and earning colored feathers for arts and crafts and horseback riding while their fathers stood around trying to find things to talk about besides their kids and their wives." Sounds like experience talking there, doesn't it?
Wade Chesterfield, the deadbeat dad and Sosa's former Gastonia teammate, steals some money from the wrong guy and then steals his children from their foster home, giving the story its cinematic flair. He takes the girls first to Myrtle Beach — they have never seen the ocean — and then to Charleston. Pursued by police and the hit man, the wobbly family reunion caravan heads to St. Louis to see McGwire and Sosa. (Tip of the cap to Cash for making this seem plausible.)
In the end, Easter and Ruby find some mercy, but the dark road in the book's title lives up to its billing.