Book review: ‘This Dark Road to Mercy’

This is from 2015 in advance of the Alamance Reads choice that year.

“This Dark Road to Mercy”; Wiley Cash; HarperCollins, 2014; 230 pages.

Can there be anything more remorseless than becoming an adult, especially the harsh transition when dreams begin to go dark, realities take shape and the idea that life can be unforgiving crystalizes from fleeting thought into hardened truth?

Probably not.

Twelve-year-old Easter Guillby is almost there at a heartbreaking age. She and 6-year-old sister Ruby already exist in life’s margins, one step away from living on the streets of near-rural Gastonia when their mom dies of a drug overdose three years after their deadbeat dad abandoned them.

This is the starting point for North Carolina author Wiley Cash’s second novel, the appropriately titled “This Dark Road to Mercy.” Cash, a North Carolina native who lives in Wilmington, constructs a layered but readable page-turner of a story told in three different voices narrating multiple intersecting lives.

And all are fraught with peril. What’s more, every single character is aware of it.

Danger, it seems, is everywhere in this alternately murky yet oddly tender story where growing up or growing old are both minefields where mistakes are more common than triumphs and revenge competes with redemption. Indeed, mercy can be difficult to find when so many grudges are involved.

Easter and Ruby, suddenly orphaned, are at the core of Cash’s story. Their father, failed minor league baseball player Wade Chesterfield, shows up one day at the foster home where the sisters have been placed. He convinces them on a nighttime visit to accompany him on the road, thus avoiding a possible move to Alaska to the home of grandparents the girls have never met.

Unknown to Easter, who’s had to grow up much more quickly than she should, Wade’s arrival delivers a boatload of problems, largely of his own making. It sets off a chain of troublesome and frightening events. They include pursuit by a sociopath Wade encountered during his baseball playing days who certainly hasn’t forgotten or forgiven; the attention of a local crime boss; and the concerns of a fallen cop.

Baseball is a theme that runs throughout “This Dark Road to Mercy.” The well-documented home run race of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is in the background, an American cultural event that ties the characters together in different ways. Wade, for example, brags that he and Sosa were teammates when both played for the Gastonia Rangers in the minor leagues. In many ways, “This Dark Road to Mercy” also hearkens to those Major League Baseball sluggers, players sullied by the performance-enhancing drug scandal of that era and whose home run achievements are forever tarnished as a result.

It may seem as if there’s almost too much going on, but Cash doesn’t get bogged down in side issues, which allows so many threads to come together so tightly. His writing style is in the best tradition of Southern fiction. Like the late Larry Brown of Mississippi or North Carolina’s Clyde Edgerton, “This Dark Road to Mercy” is a straightforward story told in language that’s deceptively simple. He makes writing look much easier than it really is.


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