“People always see the South as the Other and I more often see the South as a mirror of the whole country,” says author Silas House about his latest novel, Southernmost. Set in contemporary rural Tennessee and decadent Key West, House’s latest novel is a careful look at what happens when belief systems shatter, communities turn on each other, and divorce threatens a father’s relationship with his son.
Asher Sharp is a well-known pastor in small-town Tennessee who leads what appears to be a happy, successful life with his wife Lydia and his son Justin. On a devastating evening, when downpouring rain overfloods the Cumberland River and destroys homes and roads along the way, Asher faces the ideological crossroads he encountered when his brother came out as gay. He finds a gay couple in need of shelter from the flood, but his wife refuses to allow any aspect of homosexuality into their home and around their son. Just like he did with his brother, Asher sends the couple away, refusing to host them and to accept them in spite of their sexuality. But he doesn’t do so willingly, and his wife’s demands for a hetero-only environment are Asher’s breaking point.
“I thought that a story like this needed to be told in the South for that reason, because I think the South is a microcosm of America, and because so many people have misconceptions about the South,” House says.
Very soon after the flood, Asher starts to disown everything he and his wife built as a couple and family, but also everything he stands for as a member of his community: a loyal representative of God who upholds the values of the Bible and who expresses very few philosophical opinions that stray from that of his community. When the gay couple he turned away tries to integrate Asher’s church, many members decide to protest and demand that Asher kick them out (again). Unable to do so a second time, Asher breaks down in front of the entire congregation in a loud outcry for equality and acceptance, and ultimately quits. A young girl films him during his speech and, quickly, Asher’s breakdown goes viral. From there, everything spirals out of control, from his marriage to his relationship to his past to his understanding of a potentially godless society.
“As a novelist, you want to put your characters in as much trouble as possible,” says House. “I didn’t want to take these evangelical characters and make them clichés or one-dimensional. I grew up in an evangelical church. I know that most of these are not walking stereotypes. To be able to humanize them, I really had to zero in on what is driving this intolerance, this judgment. And what it always came back to was fear,” he continues.
And fear drives the plot of the book forward. As Asher deals with a brutal divorce that takes his son away from him, he takes things into his own hands by kidnapping Justin and heading south to Key West, Florida. His hope is to find his estranged brother, Luke, and ask for forgiveness. In the process, Asher rediscovers what life beyond the church walls looks like, forges a profound relationship with his son, and becomes aware of how much silence and secrets people carry with them.
“In this book, there’s every different kind of reaction to someone being gay, all the way from a mother who puts a gun to her child’s head to threaten him out of being gay…to somebody who’s totally accepting. I know a whole range of people exist in the South, because I know those people,” says House.
House has painted an incredibly important picture where self-silencing in the face of religious belief and self-censure for the sake of a religious moral code rest in the background, and where self-realization, empathy, and tolerance ooze from the foreground. “A lot of us have to self-censure just to live with other people, just to be able to get along with other people and our family. At some point, you hit a point where you can’t be silent anymore,” explains House.
Southernmost is a triumph of self-affirmation, shedding light on the antigay communities that make it so difficult for us to lead normal lives, no matter the religious backdrop of the city or town in which we live. But House’s novel is also an example of antigay behavior in a highly digital world. For the author, the internet has opened the minds of rural people by making them more global and more aware of how people lead their lives in more complex ways. “I think we live in an anti-intellectual time and in an anti-empathy time,” says House. According to him, the world today dramatically lacks nuance. “We can’t talk about things in complicated ways; everything is either black or white. There’s no grey,” he says. Southernmost gives us that intellectualism back and floods us with the nuanced perspectives of fascinatingly complex characters, be it those we agree with or those who fundamentally oppose our values. Southernmost is a poetic call to action.
Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. His work has been published in Paper Magazine, them, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, OUT Magazine, and BOMB Magazine, among others. He currently works and lives in Los Angeles.