‘High as the Horses’ Bridles’: facing an apocalypse-tinged childhood
Scott Cheshire’s debut novel, “High as the Horses’ Bridles,” follows a man as he returns to help his ailing father and confront a past steeped in apocalyptic religion. Cheshire reads Tuesday, July 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “High as the Horses’ Bridles” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Scott Cheshire is a writer of undeniable talent and power. The images in his first novel, “High as the Horses’ Bridles” (Henry Holt, 304 pp., $26), are vivid, his language vigorous and bright, and his storytelling passionate.
When Josiah Laudermilk returns from California to his childhood home in Queens, N.Y., he finds his widowed father starving himself, muttering fire and brimstone, and studying Biblical prophecies.
Josiah has fled his upbringing, which is illustrated by the opening scenes, set in 1980, in which the 12-year-old Josiah gives a prophetic sermon to 4,000 rapt listeners, all praying for the Apocalypse. His father, Gill, looks on, bursting with a stew of pride, love and religious fervor. “Who could’ve hoped for a son like this? Just look at him! So much more than his only child, as if Gill is ever lifting his son skyward, toward a burning sun going dark on the coming Great Day. The boy holds a promise of something extraordinary, a genuine love for the Lord, somehow an echo of authentic worship ... Josiah is their ticket home, a taste of the early time before the world forgot about the Good Book. Look at him! Up there! On stage!”
The conflation of emotion, desire for authenticity and stagecraft is potent, and Josiah emerges in the present as the adult child who exited that stage with many losses. His mother’s death from cancer, the mysterious disappearance of a childhood friend and the accidental drowning of his first girlfriend made him question, as a teenager, the family’s religious culture and the expectations placed on him to also want the blood to “run in the streets, thick and deep, high as a horse’s bridle. ” Just whose blood, he wonders, as he comes of age and emerges from belief, will run?
His return, then, to help his father, is deeply constricted by the sense that he has let his father down by no longer sharing the same faith. Yet he must gently pry his father out of the filthy, unkempt home and away from his fanatical death urge.
Josiah, now Josie, has escaped, but it is hard to say that he is freed from his past. He is damaged, and not altogether fully alive to the present, other than the deep and compassionate love he feels for his father. After the brilliant theatrics and images of his upbringing, the banality of Josie’s nonreligious life comes as a shock. His rescue of his father seems to reveal Josie to himself.
The novel would have petered out if it ended here, but Cheshire ends by taking a dramatic risk with the narrative. The final section of the novel shows a young Laudermilk, an ancestor of Gill and Josie, at an 1801 Kentucky tent revival. Brilliant in its detail and depth, and almost a stand-alone short story, this piece seeks to explain what set in motion the driving forces of their lives, and how the Laudermilks got caught up in apocalyptic fervor so strong that it lasts for four generations.
This is a fine debut novel.
Wingate Packard is a Seattle-based teacher and writer.