Country noir isn’t quite regional. Or, rather, it is regional in that it is a subgenre that demands a sense of place. But it isn’t tied to any particular region. It does even really need to be set in the country. You could (and someone really should) write an excellent country noir set in the former hillbilly enclave in Uptown Chicago. That being said, the western half of North Carolina has provided the setting for a truly disproportionate number of quality country noir tales. Ron Rash is the dean of the country noir oeuvre (fight me, Daniel Woodrell fans), but ably following in his footsteps are David Joy and Wiley Cash.
This Dark Road to Mercy is my first Wiley Cash novel (he has written three). I found it a flawed work, but a thoroughly enjoyable one nonetheless and one that shows frequent flashes of brilliance.
Wade was never much of a father to Easter and Ruby. He wasn’t around before their mom died, and he can’t take them now because he signed away his parental rights. At least not legally. Elmore Leonard writes his archvillains but his books are mostly populated by knuckleheads. Wade is a knucklehead, not an archvillain. But he takes Easter and Ruby out of their Gastonia group home in the middle of the night when he has a bag full of money in his car that its nonrightful owners will kill to get back.
Country noir tales are thick with tough-as-nails, young, female protagonists. Easter has the grit of a Ree Dolly or a Margo Crane, even if she doesn’t show the same agency they do. The first several chapters are told from her perspective. Well into the book, Cash makes the curious choice to add two more POV characters, keeping the first-person POV. Pruitt is an ex-con who has a history with Wade who is tasked with finding him. Brady is an ex-cop and Easter and Ruby’s guardian ad litem who will go looking for Easter and Ruby even if no one asks him to. I understand why Cash wanted to add those to perspectives, but introducing them so late and using first person for all three POVs is clumsy writing.
Pruitt is the heavy for the story, and he just doesn’t work for me. His motivation, his actions through the book, and his internal monologue just don’t hang together for me the way they are supposed to. The climax is a little tepid, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a flaw.
This Dark Road to Mercy is, like I said, a flawed book. Reading it I expected it to be a first novel. It isn’t, but it is only Cash’s second novel. He has a long career in front of him to improve. And I am willing to overlook the flaws because of the frequent flashes of brilliance.
The climax is tepid, but the denouement is superb. Pruitt is a weak character, but Easter and Brady are extremely strong characters. Wade is a former minor league baseball player, and he has a history with Pruitt that goes back to their playing days. I’m not a baseball guy, but Cash very effectively sets his story against the backdrop of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa’s race to break Roger Maris’ single season homerun record. Country noir, at its best, isn’t just bloody and dirty—it’s real.
It had taken a couple of years, but I’d learned that this kind of restlessness couldn’t be helped; the late afternoon still felt like the beginning of the day to me, and habit made me half afraid to go home until full dark, afraid to make something to eat, to sit down and turn on a game for fear that I’d be called away any minute to tramp along railroad tracks on the way to a dead body or to pick shell casings out of a gravel driveway in a dark trailer park. For years I’d laid in bed beside Tina, wide-awake and waiting for the phone to ring. It never rang at my place now, but that didn’t mean I’d stopped listening for it.
4 of 5 Stars.