Ghost of Tom Joad – This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

darkroadIf Bruce Springsteen wrote fiction, it might come out something like This Dark Road to Mercy. A tale of small town America and a family riven by tragedy. Easter and Ruby Quillby live in a children’s home. Their mother died of an overdose, and their father, Wade, signed away his right to care for them. Now Wade has returned. He claims he was misled, tricked into signing and now he wants his children back.

Easter can remember nothing good having come from her father, so why does he want them now?  Is it because he’s heard they may move to Alaska to their maternal grandparents, or is there some other, more sinister, reason? Wade comes for them in the night. What are his intentions? Why is a local gangster trying to find him, and who is the bouncer who bears enough of grudge to offer to kill him?

The Dark Road to Mercy is a slender novel, and for much of the time it threatens to be underpowered. It is in essence a road-trip novel. Wade takes his girls across America, searching for something; nothing tangible, just peace of mind. He is followed by a man with a grudge and another man who is Easter and Ruby’s legal guardian.  These two men are yin and yang, holding the best and worst interests of the girls. Easter and the two men are the three narrators of the story, and so we never hear directly from the story’s main focus, Wade.

Wade is a great character of the type that pops up in great American literature and Springsteen songs. A blue collar American; a man who had a dream, but could never quite fulfil it. Waster or victim of circumstance? Hero or villain?  Cast between the light and dark of the two men chasing him, Wade feels real and well-rounded. The essence of the novel is, perhaps, bad things happen to everybody, and it’s how you deal with them that define you. They can make or break you. As the novel opens Wade could go either way.

I said the novel felt underpowered, and this is true for quite a lot of the story. There is little driving force behind the narrative, and I was often found myself wondering what the point of it was going to be. It turns out the lightness of story is one of the book’s strongest points. As the book ambles towards its fitting, and not particularly thrilling or shocking conclusion, there is a little twist, that brings everything into focus.

This Dark Road to Mercy, is not about what it’s like to be a plucky kid with hapless parents. Instead it’s a novel about being a dad. The emotional hold your children have over you, even when you appear to hold all the cards. The delicate about face took my breath away.  The Dark Road to Mercy is a melancholy tale and one the packs more of an emotional punch than I ever expected. It’s a story most people will enjoy, but I think most of all it’s a novel for fathers everywhere.

Many thanks to the team at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book for review.  

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