The Blood of Heaven

  • Kent Wascom
  • Grove Press
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by Shelby Smoak
  • July 23, 2013

Amid war and rebellion, a man struggles to find his place in the Deep South of the 19th century.

Kent Wascom’s debut novel The Blood of Heaven has a simple enough storyline: a victim of politics and of environment, Angel Woolsack relates his struggle to earn a haven, a home, a happy existence. It is an American story, albeit a dark one. Along the contested boundary between Louisiana and Spanish West Florida in the early-19thcentury, Angel, born into an itinerate preacher-family, takes up the pulpit to deliver politically inspired jeremiads. As Angel amps up (anti)Christianity sentiments, the reader recalls Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes from Wise Blood. The political turmoil of the fledgling state of Louisiana, however, eventually absorbs any of Angel’s evangelical predilections and replaces them with rebellion, struggle and war. Thus enters the long shadow of Cormac McCarthy over The Blood of Heaven. Like McCarthy, Wascom’s world is brutally ruthless and filled with emotionally stunted characters and blood-soaked plots.

In The Blood of Heaven, Angel impregnates his teenaged girlfriend, murders his father, and flees to safety with his best friend and proclaimed brother, Samuel Kemper. Now orphaned, Angel struggles to survive in the wild and untamed American nation. He becomes involved with scoundrels, hucksters, bandits, rebels and whores, one of whom Angel marries, fathering a mentally handicapped son. With the “unofficial” aid of Aaron Burr, Angel and the Kemper brothers battle for the political domination of Spanish West Florida.

Wascom’s setting fascinates, while the veneer of violence makes us eager spectators in this narrative of American conquest and survival. Characters fight, brawl and skirmish, leaving them bleeding, severely wounded, forever handicapped or just dead. So pervasive are images of violence that the narrator’s myopic view of the world as blood-filled leads him to see his wife’s back as having a “blood-spoor of freckles.” This world-view intensifies when Angel proselytizes his version of creation: “The Lord slipped in his fingers [into Adam] and the rib-bone came away like it was from a long-dead corpse … Adam dreamt that night of blood.” Angel adds that even though Adam “did not know blood yet,” he still “tasted blood in his dream-mouth and he knew what it was.” The meaning of Wascom’s title becomes clear.

Perhaps The Blood of Heaven’s most engaging element is its ability to thread history throughout, especially the often unknown or unremembered history of Aaron Burr and the Kemper rebellion. While the book’s opening, with evangelical episodes, suggests a work more in tune with the American Great Awakening, the historical frame ramps up when, midway through, Burr appears and the battle for political domination of the Deep South ensues. When Burr visits the Kemper faction, he is “hailed like Christ Himself,” and “if there were palm fronds in the country the people would have scattered them on his approach,” but instead they “plucked petals from the magnolias and flung them before [Burr] as he trotted through town.” Continually, Burr makes veiled appearances in the narrative as Angel and his rebellious brothers vie for West Florida and Louisiana’s future. The rebellion and the divided factions, however, lead to Burr’s eventual trial for treason — a narrative that The Blood of Heaven places like thin gauze over the unfolding of the Kemper drama.

Deformed bodies, bleeding limbs, blindness, a mute epileptic and a pastiche of unrelenting bloody violence — these things alone firmly root The Blood of Heaven in the southern gothic tradition where abnormal is normal and where, even while trying to grow and prosper, the characters fall into inevitable decay and ruin. Ultimately, Wascom skirts around Faulkner’s Mississippi, O’Connor’s Georgia, and McCarthy’s divided interests of Tennessee and Texas to firmly plant his stake in America’s Deep South. It is a wise move. In The Blood of Heaven, Wascom paints a fuller portrait of the American South. Though he makes strong overtures to these Southern writers and their territory, Wascom makes it his own.

Shelby Smoak is the author of Bleeder: A Memoir (MSU Press), which won a 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for memoir. Shelby Smoak’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in journals and magazines such as Northern Virginia Review, Clues, New Thought Journal, Cities and Roads, and Coastal Plains Poetry. He lives and writes in Northern Virginia.

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