Clouds in white painted banks sat motionless yet ever moving across a sky so blue the locals called it Texas blue, as if they refused to believe there existed anywhere in the world a color as stark and grand as the one they saw above – as if by their unique assignment of the sky they had likewise sorted the whole of their lives into some more esteemed category.
Harlen Leblanc is a quiet, if somewhat odd, man. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, works as a groundskeeper for Carter Hills High School, and generally keeps to himself. He isn’t outgoing or outspoken but doesn’t bother anyone either, known by all, friendly, but friendless. And yet Harlen becomes embroiled in tragedy and loss, seemingly unable to avoid it or the judgmental glances and whispers of the townsfolk.
He’d spent more than twenty years working to find solace from the things he’d seen and the things he’d done. And yet his past still belonged to him, dragging along behind him like a great linked chain, becoming heavier with every step, and Leblanc forever feared the day when the chain might cease its extending and jerk him back into his reckoning.
Michael Fischer is an innocent young man born into a life of pain he neither created nor deserved. The son of Munday Fischer, he is burdened, haunted, by his father’s many sins. Michael must find his way to separating…distancing…himself from that life, but how?
Beasts of the Earth sets these two stories on a powerful and dramatic collision course.
James Wade has a knack for language and puts it to work to great effect in Beasts of the Earth. It is a page turner of a novel and like Wade’s previous books maintains a sense of tension, of foreboding from cover to cover.
That said, I struggled with how to write this review. I read the book twice, in fact, turning it over and over in my mind. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it … quite the opposite, in fact. But like Wade’s 2021 novel, River, Sing Out, this book is hard to read. Wade writes lyrically about violence and pain. He lures you in, captivates your imagination and has you rapidly flipping pages, all the while marinating your psyche in themes and ideas that most people don’t think about except in their darkest nightmares. It is the most disturbing of shell games.
It makes me wonder what it is about me that is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Beasts of the Earth. Why must I finish this book? Why, like Harlen Leblanc and Michael Fischer, am I unable to put it from my mind? Indeed, that very contrast is one of the things I think Wade’s writing reveals so clearly, that there is darkness within all of us, or at least the capacity for it. That try as we might, human beings retain the capacity destroy themselves and each other and to be fascinated by that destruction.
And yet, there is tenderness and hope in the pages of this book. Amid the darkness there is light. Friendship and love in unlikely places. The damnation of some but the salvation of others.
When they finally made it into town, there was no talk of the boy leaving. Instead, they sold fish and game at the market and used the money for cornmeal and cans of beans, soup, and new clothes for the boy, and a box of sponge cakes. And when the man introduced the boy as his nephew, no one asked questions.
So, I recommend Beasts of the Earth to you wholeheartedly, but with the warning that the world we live in can be an ugly place and James Wade writes of it in a convincing and literary way. He will make you enjoy it, thirst for it, and you may not like what you feel about yourself afterward. One final note…although I didn’t originally intend to read this novel twice, I’m glad I did. There is a tremendous amount of imagery and foreshadowing throughout that I simply missed the first time. Rereading it enhanced the book for me quite a bit.j
Be sure to check out James Wade’s website: www.jameswadewriter.com
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