Baseball differs from any other team sport because it puts as much spotlight on the struggle between two players as it does on competing teams. Never mind the outfielders and basemen — the true conflict at the heart of the game lies in the pitcher lobbing a baseball near the batter, who must unite reflexes and strength to send the ball skyward.
The legendary 1998 season, when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire competed to break Roger Maris’s home-run record, serves as an impeccable backdrop for This Dark Road to Mercy, the sophomore novel by North Carolina author Wiley Cash. Cash headlines UNC Asheville’s Celebrating Madison County, a showcase of literature, music and photography, this Saturday.
Like McGwire’s Cardinals and Sosa’s Cubs, the characters in Mercy can be split into two distinct teams. One features rambunctious young Easter Quillby and her sister Ruby. When the two Gastonia girls are left in foster care after their mother dies of a drug overdose, they come to know their absent father, Wade Chesterfield. When Chesterfield, a former minor-league baseball player, kidnaps the girls to provide them with the family life he signed away years before, Cash engages the reader in some intra-team struggle as the girls try to determine whether Chesterfield is a good dad who has made mistakes or a deadbeat crook.
Meanwhile, the opposing team manifests itself in the form of the enigmatic and menacing Pruitt, a brutal hitman and former teammate of Chesterfield who has been paid to hunt him down. The umpire in this metaphor is the well-meaning Brady Weller, a former cop who’s the girls’ guardian and aims to find Chesterfield and the Quillby sisters before Pruitt does.
The novel is alternately narrated by Easter, Weller and Pruitt, and Cash does an excellent job of keeping the three characters’ voices unique. Easter is an independent, spunky girl, greatly indebted to Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, albeit a little older. Cash gives her a distinctly Southern voice, marked with that specific degree of unsophistication befitting a young person attempting to keep it together like an adult. Her chapters are injected with the most personality, and her bond with Ruby over their mother, baseball and the game “Oregon Trail” is heartwarmingly written.
Pruitt, in contrast, is cold and calculating, and his ruthless pursuit of the protagonists feels all the more chilling when Cash grants the reader a snapshot into his mindset. Weller’s chapters tend to feel more straightforward, as if they were merely tools to keep the reader unconfused concerning the interplay among the Quillby sisters, Chesterfield and Pruitt. But his minor backstory as a struggling single father paints him sympathetically and explains his determination in caring for the abandoned girls.
The rotating narration comes with its downfalls, however. Many times, Cash alleviates dramatic tension created in one chapter almost immediately with the change in narrator. When Pruitt commits some unspeakable act in his single-minded hunt that is left ambiguous, Weller’s former partner, Sandy, working with the FBI to find Chesterfield, informs him about the act in full detail mere pages later. Or when Chesterfield and the sisters make a clever move to evade capture, Pruitt or Weller surmise their plan almost instantly.
A greater degree of lasting tension could do the novel some good, especially at the climax, set at the St. Louis game when McGwire shattered Maris’s record. McGwire’s achievement has since been marred by the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but Cash’s plot could use a small steroid injection to beef it up at moments like this, which resolve all too quickly.
Nevertheless, Mercy is a compelling novel with charming protagonists, and its heartwarming ending provides the story with that final home run needed to win the game in Cash’s favor. The tale intertwines redemption, baseball and the South in a manner never devoid of charms, setting a story in 1998 that feels relevant 15 years later.
— Max Miller can be reached at email@example.com
what: Celebrating Madison County
where: UNCA’s Humanities Lecture Hall and Sherrill Center, avl.mx/022
when: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25 & 26.
Cash reads from his first novel, A Land More Kind than Home, on Oct. 26, 1-2:30 p.m.