Kent Wascom’s debut novel “The Blood of Heaven” reads like the slow burn of a Bourbon swallow. The novel crawls the banks of the muddy Mississippi during the early 19th century with a young boy, Angel Woolsack. Wascom tells his tale in a Huckleberry-like fashion, with a slow-drawn language that may not sit well with all readers. Those who have acquired the taste of works like Twain will savor the calescent syntax. The language is that of a young man’s sermon, of a naïve revolutionary, and of the South’s odyssey into statehood under the presidency of founding father Thomas Jefferson. Yet, our aged Angel, reflecting as narrator, assures us in the prologue, “we will never be the shining city on the hill.”
On the Spanish banks of West Florida and beyond, stately men busy themselves by hammering out what will become the states of Louisiana and Florida. While these men plot their politics, Angel grows under the charred wing of a man he must only ever call “Preacher-Father.” His father is a traveling, Evangelical preacher in search of a flock. He is a man who feeds Angel hot coals as a punishment for his sins and asks him, as he chews, to taste “the kernel of Hell at the white of the coal,” and “the cries of the sinners it held.”
Angel and his Preacher-Father find a flock of wormy, bloat-bellied people living in dugouts, with minds easily swayed to the word of the Lord. Angel is a prodigy with a tongue seemingly born to lash out sermons. Soon Angel makes friends with a newcomer, Samuel Kemper. The two become brothers “not of blood but of love and war.” When forced to abandon their flock and their fathers, Samuel and Angel go on the run as thieving outlaws, yet still preach the grace of the Lord. They take shelter in Natchez, Mississippi with a wearily-aged coquette, retired from the whore managing business. She chides Angel on his tall tales of a coming savior, “give me a story that’s not got lies in its stitches."
The two boys seek to cauterize the sins of man, yet they continually fall in with seedy individuals, a highwayman that likes to dip into the slave trade and collects workers with harelips and other deformities. The plot twists down paths with narrow escapes for our Angel. The novel swells and floods the levees of factual history, admitting the embellishments along the way while whispering that our history books too are laced with legend. Yet, it is not only Southern legend that drives this tale, but the rebellious and righteous character of Angel, who, we discover, is a hopeless romantic. He proclaims that when Adam found Eve at his side, “if there were storms in Eden it would be like lightning shot through him, and a breath escaped his awe-opened lips and the sound the breath made was her.”
Angel meets his soul mate in the murderess prostitute, Red Kate. He buys her outright with money made as a highwayman and they travel along with the Kempers through years of Spanish rule and rebellion. Yet, the sound of lead musket shot rolling over wooden planks of their home is always present. War is consistently imminent for the restless Angel, who believes in the United States, “because we numbered them with stars, the possibilities were likewise infinite.” The American thirst for conquering and claiming can never be quenched.
Wascom’s first novel speaks volumes. With “The Blood of Heaven” we are baptized in the bayou with Angel as he recalls how “the alligators brushed me with their scales; crabs and crawfish nipped and fingerling shrimp bristled my face with their legs.” Travel the dark and shimmering waters into the sweltering South with Angel, pick up a few pieces of quasi-historical trivia, and know, with an anxiously decadent delight, that soul-shaping secrets of New Orleans and the bayous beyond await. Wascom burnishes his tale in brimstone and bone.