Wascom (Secessia, 2015, etc.) delivers a lyrical, emotionally charged study of life along the Gulf Coast a century past.
With less self-conscious flash than in his previous novel, largely set in New Orleans, Wascom moves out to shore and “the sea of storms” with this comparatively modest tale of nature-knowing Isaac Patterson and his love for Kemper Woolsack, the heiress to the fortune of a family who constituted “a machine that fed on misery,” its riches bound to extracting the resources of the Gulf with no regard for the cost in the lives of others. Rich or poor, Wascom’s characters harbor secrets—especially Kemper’s brother, Angel, “hopelessly, helplessly bound” to a thinly closeted life as a gay man in a time when such a life is harshly punished. Angel’s torments are bound up as well in a Shakespearean family dynamic that plays out among the rusting hulk of the Maine, the streets of Havana and the hills of Haiti, and mildewed manses from Louisiana to Florida. Suffice it to say that not much can end well given such ingredients. Even so, the tragedy that closes Kemper and Isaac’s life together comes as a swiftly onrushing surprise, as does a galloping conclusion that follows a much more languorously unfolding narrative, one that takes in wayward women, country preachers, orphanages, steaming ports, and a thousand well-observed period details. The best moments of this very good book are those in which Wascom writes with sententious but not sentimental poetry: “There are those who condescend to tell you about love and loss, and have known neither at its full pitch, which is nearest to madness and sends us out to wander unknown, night-black countries, seeking what we cannot have, the land growing less and less familiar with each step.”
Family drama and love story, Wascom’s latest is evidence of an evolving talent. Look for more.