This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel

  • By Wiley Cash
  • William Morrow
  • 240 pp.

A deadbeat dad kidnaps his two daughters from foster care following the death of their mother.

This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel

Great title, check. Gripping sound bites, the author’s debut previously hailed as instant literary sensation, check and check. All indicators point to success for Wiley Cash’s second novel. I can see This Dark Road To Mercy making it to the big screen, complete with parts for the next Anna Paquin or Quvenzhané Wallis.

But something doesn’t add up; this novel is not what it could be. Perhaps author Wiley Cash needed more time to work on it, to grapple more deeply with his characters and with the voice. But more importantly, he needed a skillful editor to make difficult cuts and queries, to hone this into a good book. As it stands, This Dark Road To Mercy reads like a promising early draft. You can almost feel the marketing team pushing the author forward. Get it out fast, Wiley. We’ve got a lot of hype behind you.

The story concerns two little girls who lose their mother to drug addiction, and their deadbeat dad, Wade Chesterfield, who kidnaps them from foster care and drives them across the state. As in Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home, the story takes place in North Carolina.

The novel is written from three points of view. Twelve-year-old Easter begins the story. Then we hear from a creepy guy named Pruitt, who’s out to kill Wade (think Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”). Finally, there’s Brady Weller, a court-appointed guardian who, like Wade, has a daughter he wants to protect. But the three voices blend together and you often forget who’s speaking. You wonder why Cash chose to write in first person, since much of the narrative would have worked better in third.

He also undermines his own great set-up by providing irrelevant details. For example, when Easter and her little sister Ruby go to a drugstore and dial 911 to report their mother’s death, Easter tells us about the drugstore and how she “figured [the salesclerk] was wondering what two little girls were doing alone at the store this early in the morning.” What? She’s just discovered her mother’s body. Is she really focused on what the salesclerk thinks?

Another example: Hot on the trail of Wade and the girls, Brady Weller meets a contact in a local diner. Lives are at stake, but the scene lacks tension. Instead Weller gives us this. “I carried the tray over to the booth where Kelly was sitting and divvied up the food before gesturing towards the two sodas ‘You can have whichever one you want,’ I said. ‘Thanks,’ he said, but he didn’t make a move for either of them and he didn’t unwrap his cheeseburger. He finally picked up a French fry and put it in his mouth. I was starving and I didn’t hesitate. I unwrapped my cheeseburger and took a bite, and then I emptied my little bag of fries on a napkin I’d opened beside my cheeseburger.”

Such descriptions (and there are many of them) detract from the focus and in this case they have the effect of making the subsequent interrogation feel like a red herring. The wrong things have been described, and a lot of this comes down to the problem of point of view.

I got the sense that This Dark Road To Mercy may have begun as a screenplay and was then converted into a novel. Even the characters see themselves as part of a movie. “I got to take the field,” says Easter early in the novel, “and even as I said it I thought it sounded like something somebody might say in a movie right before something good or something bad happened to let you know whether the ending was going to be a happy one or not.”

This brings me to the story Cash really wants to tell, about minor-league ballplayers and broken dreams. Several characters, including Wade Chesterfield, once played with the Gastonia Rangers in North Carolina. Cash wants to tell us about those who didn’t make it and what becomes of them, and how they follow and admire players who go on to the major leagues, like Sammy Sosa. When he writes baseball he’s at his best. There’s a great scene in a theme park where Wade teaches his girls to pitch. It goes on for several pages and for me this was the heart of the novel.

You understand that although he’s a loser, Wade wants badly to be a part of his daughters’ lives. He may not be a good parent, but he knows a thing or two about playing ball, can take his kids on great adventures and deserves this opportunity.

When Cash is in this terrain you sense that given more time and more editorial support, this novel might have been everything the marketers crack it up to be. But editing isn’t where they put their efforts. They seem to have put those into promotion. That might work brilliantly for sales. But it has not served the story well, or Cash’s readers.

Amanda Holmes (Duffy) contributes frequently to the Washington Independent Review of Books and is the author of I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, which will be published by Oak Tree Press this April.

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