Violence is the one constant in this bombastic first novel about frontier adventurers in the American South at the start of the 19th century.
That violence came early for Angel Woolsack. His father, an itinerant preacher, punished the boy by having him suck live coals. The narrator/protagonist will find a friend, though, in another preacher’s son, Samuel Kemper, a big lug 10 years his senior. Only 14, Angel impregnates a convert’s daughter, who is drowned by her scandalized mother. Angel then strikes his father dead with the shovel used to dig the girl’s grave and is saved from a lynching by Samuel, who whisks him away on horseback. Angel sees him as his brother, taking the Kemper name. From Missouri, the “brothers” drift south, and Angel turns criminal, with Samuel his accomplice. He mugs drunken merchants while praying for their souls; a gun-toting, Bible-brandishing daredevil. In Natchez, Miss., he’s ready to mate with an equally violent young whore. Red Kate, 14, axed to death the Creek Indians who had kidnapped her; she now works for a fearsome madam. “We’re children of desolation,” Angel declares to Kate. This rhetorical flourish substitutes for character analysis; the biblical resonance of Wascom’s prose helps mask the implausible action. Angel buys Kate from her madam, and the two move to West Florida, still administered by the Spanish. In this lawless country of slavers and hucksters, there will be firefights, ambushes and reprisal killings; Angel, failing to understand that revenge is a dead end and God owes him nothing, discards his Bible. Enter Aaron Burr, the disgraced vice president. Wascom miscalculates by trying to fit his freelance backwoodsman into a historically grounded power play. The star-struck Angel loses his autonomy to become a tiny, uncomprehending cog in Burr’s machine, and the novel sinks into a quagmire of shifting historical alliances.
A debut that has a certain mad zest but is seriously hurt by its lack of a trajectory.