Scott Cheshire was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. As he got older, it became something he began to understand less and less as he was becoming more attracted by secular reading (namely novels). Around the close of his teenage years, he made a difficult decision to leave the church for good. Cheshire’s unique upbringing suffuses his debut novel High as the Horse’s Bridles with the rare vantage point of a literary writer versed in an American evangelical tradition who no longer practices but doesn’t have any agenda against his former religion.
“See the stars, the affixed points of light, the glowing striated mists of silvery cloud,” Cheshire writes. “See the night clouds lolling, drifting above their heads across an expanse of blue plaster sky. Like vapors released, dust climbs blue-gray and upward like prayers.” The novel opens as Cheshire describes the ceiling of the Howard Theater in Queens, New York, 1980. His protagonist and soon to be prodigal preacher, Josiah Laudermilk, takes the stage and delivers a sermon that ultimately changes his life. Jump 25 years forward and Josiah is now Josie, a faithless (at least not the same kind of faith) man who returns to Queens to take care of his ailing and widowed father. Home after many years, Josie begins to confront the accumulation of an existence that has made him who he is and he begins to reconcile the ties between himself and his dying father.
“At some point I realized that I was just writing a book about a guy and his dad, a guy getting to better know his father,” Cheshire says. While Cheshire makes it clear that neither Josiah nor Josie are his doppelgangers, the novel does feel like an earnest reflection of the autobiographical parallels between him and his protagonist. When he realized he was essentially writing a story about a father and his son, “so many of the problems I had to control and write dramatically about religion just felt like they weren’t important anymore,” he says.
“There’s a tremendous difference between a religious novel and a novel that is about religion,” Cheshire explains. “I did not want to write a religious book. I wanted to write a book that thought about religion, that thinks and considers and essentially interrogates religion,” he says.
Like Josiah, Cheshire, also preached as a youth, witnessing. “I was on stage all the time, I was really good at it, it turns out. But within that world it’s not that unique, actually, it’s part of the tradition,” he says.
“ ‘See the returning Christ riding on a great white horse, and here even now He comes riding!’ ” Josiah exclaims during one of his sermons. “He straightens his back, shouting, and believing every word as it comes to him: ‘The Lord God has said every star will fall, and the sun will turn black in the sky,’ ” writes Cheshire as Josiah becomes “a receptacle, an empty bowl, a deep and lucky cup of God.” Josiah’s sermon is tantamount to hitting a home run, making a winning basket or throwing a touchdown. His father is sitting in the front row rapt in the reality that this is actually his son. “Who is this boy? So unlike other boys his age. What does he know? What is he thinking?,” Cheshire writes. As present-day Josie drifts back through his Queens neighborhood nostalgically putting the pieces of his existence back together, whatever faith still lingers begins to conflict with the stubborn pragmatism of now, each respective ethos questioning and prodding the other.
In the third act, the close of the present makes way for a long-ago past in a stunningly rendered scene in Woodford, Kentucky. The metaphysical roles of Josie and his father are seemingly inverted as the latter stresses practical consequences and the former discovers the unquestioning confidence of a true believer and proselytizer. The father shows his son the woods, and the river. “ ‘All of this mine. And yours. God’s too, if there is one. And it don’t cost a penny from your pocket,’ ” he tells him. The unmistakable uncertainty of what exactly Truth, God and Love are to us and how we can share that unconditionally with our loved ones resonates from a renovated theater in Queens to a burning cane break in Kentucky.
Evan Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Central Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.