This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to MercyThis Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would like to thank the publisher, William Morrow/HarperCollins, for my advance review copy of This Dark Road to Mercy.
I was impressed when I recently read Wiley Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. To my mind, This Dark Road to Mercy, Cash’s second novel, reaffirms that he is a gifted and thoughtful storyteller. Cash explores themes of family and the impact of poverty, and reveals a sometimes heart-breaking picture of the struggles of people living in the American South today.
Cash’s first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, followed multiple characters involved in a snake-handling church. It demonstrated the impact that hopelessness and isolation had on the community, as well as the way in which sometimes deadly religious abuse could occur. It was very much a story about people, and their attempt to survive in very difficult circumstances.
This Dark Road to Mercy deals with many of the same themes, as it follows the lives of two young girls whose mother has recently died from a drug overdose. Easter and her younger sister Ruby are put in the foster-care system, but their father Wade, a drifter and former minor-league baseball player with no legal rights to his daughters, decides he wants to be their full-time caregiver. He unlawfully takes the girls from their foster-care residence.
Unlike A Land More Kind Than Home, This Dark Road to Mercy has a strong thriller element, as Wade, Easter, and Ruby are pursued by a violent criminal with a vendetta against them. So while Cash’s first novel did deal with themes of violence, abuse of power, and death, it was to me, first and foremost a character(s) study. In This Dark Road to Mercy, although the themes of family, love, and growing up are crucial, the action and suspense is perhaps the driving force of the novel.
I was impressed that Cash was able to write two such different novels, and surprised at the graphic violence that This Dark Road to Mercy contained. Something I really enjoyed in this second novel was how Cash wove in the baseball element; Wade was a former baseball player, and the 1998 home run competition between Mark Mcgwire and Sammy Sosa was a continuing theme throughout the story. Cash intertwined the building suspense of the baseball season and the building danger in the road trip of the main characters in a way that culminated beautifully.
So with all this said, Wiley Cash is a writer of depth, whose love for his flawed and struggling characters shines through. He is talented at writing from different narrative perspectives.
Despite this, for some reason, I find his stories less enjoyable and compelling than I feel I should, given that they clearly have a lot of great things about them. Wiley Cash is frequently compared to Tom Franklin, and while I can see the similarity in themes and location, for me, Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter touched me deeply in a way that Cash’s writing does not.
Partly, I think that Franklin has an amazing ability to evoke sense of place, of the rural American South today, that Wiley Cash’s narratives don’t achieve. While Cash is great at creating interesting characters, Franklin’s descriptions of Mississippi are evocative and precise to my experience of that specific region. While Cash’s characters could be almost any family struggling with poverty and addiction, Franklin captures the specific feel of contemporary Mississippi, and of the complexity of race relations there. In the same vein, while I sympathized with Cash’s characters, I felt deep grief for Franklin’s characters. My level of emotional involvement in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was much more intense than in This Dark Road to Mercy.
All that said, if you enjoyed Wiley Cash’s debut novel, I would definitely recommend that you read This Dark Road to Mercy. Cash is a novelist to watch, and I will be interested to see what he writes in the future.

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