Kent Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom, Atlantic Books, RRP£14.99/Grove Press, RRP$25, 456 pages

Kent Wascom’s brutal bildungsroman starts in 1861 as the state of Louisiana celebrates its secession from the no-longer United States. That Angel Woolsack – the vicious, compelling narrator of this sprawling debut – marks his own jubilation by pissing blood down on to the cheering crowds below his window offers a warning to the reader who may be faint of heart. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, for The Blood of Heaven is a tale of fire and brimstone, the ballad of a man, and a nation, forged in a crucible of suffering.

Half a century ago, novels of America’s frontier stressed glory rather than squalor; Cormac McCarthy changed all that. Blood Meridian, published in 1985, still stands as a towering monument of the revisionist western, its language stark yet biblical, its violence unflinching. At least at the outset, a parallel could be drawn between the unnamed protagonist of McCarthy’s novel and Angel, also a teenage runaway with a penchant for savagery. Like McCarthy, Wascom seeks to show that the Founding Fathers’ dream of a nation conceived in liberty might look very different from the idyll imagined in 1776.

 Angel is an old man in 1861; after the prologue the novel becomes a recollection of his early days, just 30 years after the revolution, when the states that would become Louisiana and Florida were still fought over by the French and the Spanish, and when Americans themselves argued over just what might constitute their country. Those arguments were bloody ones, and Angel threw himself into them. “I have been the instrument: killer and conduit elite. I have rendered man, woman, and child unto the Lord with shot, stick, knife, hanging rope, and broken glass, but I have delivered many more with the voice I keep coiled down deep in my withered throat, and with such expedience as would make the crashing bullet weep and the knife blade, imperceptible in its sharpness, strike dull.”

Angel is the son of a holy-roller preacher, the source both of his florid language and his withered throat: as a boy he was made to suck live coals for punishment. The rococo clang of his narration – particularly the inventive swearing – also brings to mind David Milch’s much-missed HBO series, Deadwood. And, as in Deadwood, there really is no respite from cruelty and gore in this long gallop of a book in which throats are shot out, eyeballs hang from their sockets and children poison themselves sucking lead shot. The words crack out at a furious pace, yet the story meanders as Angel seeks his fortune with the Kemper brothers, Sam and Reuben who carve out a living among the contested ground of what was then called West Florida.

The Kempers can be found in the history books as can several others: Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s disgraced vice-president, best-known for his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton; and General Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory. This isn’t a novel to read if you’re seeking factual enlightenment: it can be a rough, confusing ride. But Wascom is able to create an eerie bond between America’s past and its present. “You have to win and win again. That is the American way of war: you have to win forever.”

Wise words from an author who is still only 27. It is his conjuring of Angel’s voice that carries the reader through to the end – for this is a novel that could lose 100 pages and not suffer. I wished, too, that Red Kate, Angel’s beloved, didn’t follow the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold trope so closely.

Or rather, I wished that right until the end of the novel, where Wascom effects a masterly reversal. And its portrait of slavery, “the only way a man without standing can make his way in this world”, is pitilessly exact: the blood of heaven that runs like a dreadful river under the history of a still-divided nation.