No less a writer than Clyde Edgerton states that Cash’s first novel “sings with talent.” Gail Godwin acknowledges the novel’s “great cumulative power.” Yet, there are those among us who seem to be so threatened or so self-impressed and territorial that the idea of such a young turk invading their marked territory comes off as an anathema.
One recent review attacked Cash saying that the novel was “shallow,” full of “undeveloped props,” “clichés” and had “characters from a zombie movie.” What Wiley has actually done in his book is to update some of those past stereotypes by placing his story in a contemporary setting and crafting a book that is “beautifully written” (Clyde Edgerton) and is “pitch perfect” (Rikki Ducornet).
In another instance there are review comments that nitpick that the young narrator’s language is “too sophisticated” or that members of the rural community church in the story are little more than a “shuffling multitude” — which of course they are, because this is a book told from the first-person perspective of the three major characters. It is not a political survey and therefore dares to leave something to the imagination.
The final blow to my sensibilities came with a comment calling the book’s title “pretentious” — because it was taken from a line by Thomas Wolf — and insinuating that Cash’s whole intention in using such a title was little more than a ploy to project some “reflected glory” onto his first-time efforts. Methinks this reviewer friend doth protest too much!
What I have gleaned from Cash’s new novel is this — it’s one of the best reading experiences in recent years. All during the time it took to read this book (which didn’t take long because I couldn’t put it down), I kept thinking about how much it reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I marveled at how Cash’s language was simple yet sophisticated, and how I was taken cleverly, yet deeply, into the storyline and into the lives (in fact the souls) of his characters. I came away from reading this novel exclaiming to the world that Cash had written the Southern Appalachian version of To Kill A Mockingbird.
In the end, Cash’s book belongs, I believe, in our current contemporary canon of Southern Appalachian fiction as penned by Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell, Ron Rash, Silas House and Pam Duncan. While at times disturbing (which any good story is wont to be), this book is as kind to Cash’s home of Madison County and the land that defines it as Harper Lee’s was to her home town of Monroeville, Ala. I tire of these self-important mountain “sages” and New York know-it-alls who feel that they have to demean rather than empower younger writers who dare to be even a little poetic or peculiarly penchant of place.
On the other hand, I applaud and echo the sentiments of Fred Chappell, who is willing to embrace a little humility and write “this is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.” Or, as Ernest J. Gaines so prophetically puts it: “I think this could be the beginning of a long, fruitful career.”