A Crisis of Faith
In the beginning is a 12-year-old boy named Josiah Laudermilk, son of Gill Laudermilk, grandson of Orren, preaching to a congregation 4,000 large in Queens, 1980, with a Star Wars action figure secreted in his pocket, his heart anxious to meet his father’s expectations and impress the boys who find him weird for his piety, and who, in an “inspired riff, divinely played,” prophesizes that Jesus Christ will return on a great white horse in the year 2000. In the beginning the narrative voice of Scott Cheshire’s debut novel, High As The Horses’ Bridles, is in the third-person, the characters a flammable cast of horny adolescents, put-upon mothers, too-serious nuns and brothers, and the sentences laden with language conjuring the smells of sweat and buttered popcorn, brimstone and sulfur, and tangy torrents of blood. In the beginning it seems clear: end times are upon us.
High As The Horses’ Bridles
(Henry Holt and Co., 2014)
Great, then, is the surprise when, after 30 pages of this feverish, fervent prose, the novel re-introduces young Josiah as the adult Josie, speaking in the first person in the year 2005. The adult Josie is nothing like the soothsayer who set fire to an auditorium full of believers. Over 20 years later that experience “feels strange, alien, like the memory of a scene from a film.” He pines for his ex-wife, does little to save his failing retail business, and no longer goes to church, or lives in New York City, or keeps in touch with his father, or holds onto much of anything from his old life. Like in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, the extreme shift in voice, time, and place paints a sepia wash over what came before, so that even though those first pages were ripe with problems—the white boy’s struggle to make friends with his cooler, Hispanic peers; to make sense of the strange and confusing politics among the clergymen; to ferret out the tense mystery of his parents’ hushed bickering—his youth becomes, in the mind of the reader, by very nature of having been lost something treasured by very nature of having been lost.
Loss lies at the center of Cheshire’s novel. Josiah begins losing his faith moments after making his prophecy, as he sees his ailing mother—soon to be diagnosed with cancer—in the audience and thinks about how, come Armageddon, blood will flow in the street as high as the horses’ bridles. “Wait a second now: Whose blood? […] My good mother would one day slip and swim through whose wet blood?” That recollection leads to other realizations as to the grim realities of Revelation, especially when, as a teenager, Josiah grows to love a Bangladeshi girl named Bhanu. “The elder onstage said they were hiding in our homes and in our neighborhoods, the Devil-music listeners, and the adolescent masturbators, the false clergymen of neighboring churches, and closeted atheists, the New Agers and yoga practitioners, and even casual dabblers in the abominable Oriental religions. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. They would all be punished if they didn’t open their hearts to the Lord.”
Imagining Bhanu’s “front porch collapsing in the swell of a blood-river wake” doesn’t sit well with the big-hearted Josiah, and the religious surety of his youth ebbs. In the aftermath of his mother’s death, his father’s falters too, though in a wildly different way. Gill turns from a churchgoer to a gnostic nut, wearing nothing but a loincloth, hair unkept, surviving only on a weekly meal of bread and wine, hunting relics online, and communing with no one except a pack of feral cats. Josie returns homes to care for him and finds a house full of memories. Given the zest of the opening sequence, this slower-paced middle section, nested with flashbacks, cannot help but lag at times in comparison. But the intimate, delicate brushstrokes Cheshire uses to paint Josie’s life, and some particularly volatile scenes involving the painful end of his marriage and his father’s deteriorating mental state, keep the story’s emotional pulse from flat-lining.
More impressive is reaching the novel’s third act, which returns to the third person and moves to Kentucky, 1801, drawing Josiah’s elder relative, at this point an adolescent boy, into the picture. Taken together, Cheshire’s triptych demonstrates the allure of revelation, of belief in luck and rewards for good deeds, though that vision be a kind of blindness to the fact that when some are saved, others are damned. Even the brightest of loves can turn vicious, and really, who among us are angels? Cheshire provides no easy answers, instead leading his characters into a valley of questions and letting them walk alone. And in this, the novel feels human and honest, asking lofty questions while staying down on Earth.