Beasts of the Earth: A Novel
- By James Wade
- Blackstone Publishing
- 350 pp.
- Reviewed by Nick Havey
- January 5, 2023
This gritty, lyrical exploration of the human condition lacks a soul.
There are many works of literature that explore aspects of the human condition. These books draw us in with relatable, if sometimes hyperbolic, stories of love, loss, and brutality. One of my favorite examples is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. When read in the most superficial of ways, it’s ostensibly about a father and son’s journey to safety following an apocalyptic event. What made it a Pulitzer Prize winner is that it’s about so much more than the journey itself. It is heartbreaking, challenging, and replete with commentary on the cruelty of life.
James Wade’s Beasts of the Earth could be similarly read as this sort of grit-lit, lyrical exploration of the human condition. The book opens on Harlen LeBlanc in late 1980s Texas. A quiet man in a quiet, dying town, Harlen has a careful, measured routine that he doesn’t deviate from. He works as a groundskeeper at the local high school, keeps a spartan apartment, and has few relationships. He’s a bit of a Boo Radley-type recluse, but instead of serving as a vessel for the town’s fears, he more reflects the stability and peace that most of its residents lack.
That all changes when a young girl is found butchered in a supply shed on the grounds of the school, with her ex-boyfriend the obvious suspect. Harlen considers the boy one of his few friends, and his attempts to intervene in the investigation to clear the boy’s name drive much of the plot.
Alongside Harlen’s story, Wade introduces us to Michael and Munday Fischer. Their thread is set some 20 years prior to Harlen’s in the swamps of Louisiana, where Michael lives with his almost hysterically religious mother and his Pollyanna sister. Michael’s father, Munday, a craven brute who has been imprisoned for violent acts, is a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. When he’s released early, the blade drops.
Harlen’s attempt to bring justice to his friend, a recent graduate with injury-dashed sports dreams, and to the murdered girl, his neighbor’s daughter, backfires almost immediately. Caught snooping in the shed for clues, Harlen quickly finds himself at the center of the novel’s tension. His air of mystery shifts from anodyne to suspicious, and the seemingly cordial relationships he has with many of the townspeople — the sheriff, teachers at the school, his neighbors — suddenly become fraught. He is a marked man.
Meanwhile, Michael has fled his home, his mother, and his sister and taken up with a curious man in the swamp. A poet, Michael and his companion spend quiet months together until they can’t anymore. The man’s health begins to fail, and Munday becomes the problem Michael had fled. Like everything in Beasts of the Earth, the peaceful calm of Michael’s life in the swamp is shattered when he returns to reality to face his father.
In both timelines, Harlen and Michael confront time, the mistakes from their pasts, and what they can do to affect a better future. Both men find themselves in situations of beautifully expressed violence. A hunting knife slicked with blood is wrapped in a cloth and deposited beneath a mattress, a keepsake of a life left behind; a body is left to decompose. Wade describes Harlen’s raw confrontation with an evil man in sparse yet evocative prose:
“LeBlanc sat next to the dead man. He couldn’t say how long. He cried and screamed and cried again. He cried until he could no longer breathe and then he crawled. He crawled across the dust-filmed floor and he spilled forth from the old house and onto the porch, and neither the sun nor LeBlanc would rise. He crawled from the porch and across the dirt like a beast of the earth. He covered his hands with the dirt and then slapped his own face. Over and again, he struck himself, and with each reprise he shouted out into the morning dark all the curses he could conjure.”
Where Cormac McCarthy’s characters are running from something tangible, Wade’s run from themselves. This is codified at the start of Beasts of the Earth with an epigraph from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?”
This sets the stage for the merciless book that follows, but it is also where the similarities between McCarthy’s novel and Wade’s end. Throughout Beasts of the Earth, I kept asking myself why the characters were doing the things they did. Their conversations were not disinteresting, nor were the scenes and situations they found themselves in, but like Harlen, I found myself crawling and crawling toward the end, expecting solace in the closure and finding none.
This may be because Wade’s novel feels unmoored. It is lyrical, it is well written, and it is compelling. It is also empty. The action is quick and demonstrative but mired in choking, viscous description that drowns forward motion, trapping the narrative in a murky swamp not unlike the one Michael spends most of the book in. I expected to be drawn deep into the core of a story interrogating everyday human brutality; instead, I never left the surface. But what a beautifully adorned surface it was.
Nick Havey is a senior manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.