In a tale of brutality, rebellion, ambition and the heavy hand of God, Wascom evokes the lives of three men, two brothers by blood, the third by friendship begun in 1880. Meeting as the sons of itinerant preachers in upper Louisiana (now Missouri), Angel Woolsack and Samuel Kemper form a bond born of proximity and adolescent rebellion, racing into the future after Angel strikes his fire-and-brimstone Preacher-father down in a moment of great emotional trial. Both young men motherless, they head to the southern borderlands in search of Samuel’s older brother, Reuben. The elusive Reuben seems larger than life, idol of Samuel, a large man himself, who speaks of his brother as the key to their success in the future. Calling each other brothers, the two travel the low roads of brothels, falling into trade with a bejeweled, fast-talking preacher, who justifies brutality as inspired by God.
Enmeshed with the Reverend Morrell and his band of “Blesseds,” the “brothers” are delivered by Reuben, who has established himself in West Florida at a time when the country is seething with opportunity, on the verge of expanding, perhaps breaking from the Spanish influence to unite as one. But time and politics forge strange bedfellows, the flurry of vested interests, profits, political machinations and favors a murky cauldron. Their land and profits threatened, the Kemper brothers foment a battle that begins locally but is fueled by a spirit of rebellion endemic to the place and time. The Kemper brothers have a vested interest in keeping their property and supporting the annexation of land held by the Spanish and French.
The novel covers a broad canvas. In the city of Natchez, Angel meets his true love, Red Kate, in a bordello. Among the plantations along the Mississippi River, a lucrative slave trade inspires adventurous schemes in spite of the suffering incurred. Eventually they arrive at the back-room wheeling and dealing of New Orleans, where the great schemes are hatched: a plan to create a new country under the leadership of Aaron Burr, the Louisiana Purchase providing the foundation for the conflict of interests that leads all the way to Washington.
Wascom creates this fiction from the lives of the men caught in the vortex of possibility, men raised on evangelicalism and religious fanaticism, the justification of violence, even murder as an act of Divine Will. The law is no impediment to those who thrive on secret deals or seek personal fortunes under the guise of good for others. The novel is built on the very flaws of humanity, the struggle between base desires and noble aspirations. Born in the blood and violence of God’s iron will and the salvation of indigent souls, Angel comes naturally to the self-expression that usually ends in brutality, his first bonds with Samuel born of fists and rage as each seeks to dominate the other.
The long years of rebellion, false starts, betrayal, avarice and fanatical need for revenge feed on the very nature of that struggle. Angel follows the lead of his brothers, tormented by the voice of his Preacher-father. Satisfaction of his own base impulses come at the cost of his family and an acceptance of damnation as he strides the earth sowing hatred, fear—and worse, self-justification. For all his gross excesses, his inherently violent nature, Angel remains just shy of the humanity that might reclaim him, so devoted to despair and worldly cynicism that he cannot but bear the burden of his own existence, as though saying, “I’m a vile man, but what more could I be?”
This is not an easy book to read, filled with the suffering of slaves, the brutality of men and the howling voice of an angry God without mercy. It’s a world full of cons, criminals, opportunists, wily politicians, corrupt governors and the random detritus of a country built on savaging the property of others, all in the name of a grand experiment. It is a place built of hard and crafty men, those such as the Kemper brothers, who take what they need and fight back when threatened. Wascom captures in all in every harrowing detail.