Enter the world of Silas House’s “Southernmost” with an open mind and a clear slate. If you’re a reader who likes first to absorb a book jacket, with its laudatory quotes and quick summary of a novel’s storyline, you may find yourself bewildered.
The latest novel by House, author of seven works including “A Parchment of Leaves,” begins in a rush, as a devastating flood in a small Tennessee town sets off a chain of reactions. Within 25 pages, amid horrifically vivid images of carnage, we’re introduced to evangelical preacher Asher Sharp, his mother-in-law, Zelda, his wife, Lydia, and their son, Justin.
Asher, the son of an abusive mother and absent father, struggled all of his life with internal conflicts between the tenets of his Christian belief and how he lives them out. As a teen, Asher saw his mother reject his brother, Luke, when Luke told her he was gay. Now Asher, facing a gay couple whose home has been washed away – a couple who saved Justin from rushing toward the river to find his dog – struggles to find his voice when Justin offers them a place to stay for the night and Lydia objects.
That night proves pivotal in Asher and Lydia’s relationship, as he questions how different their views have become. By the end of the week, after arguing about how they responded to the couple, Lydia says, “I love you, Asher; I’ve always loved you,” and Asher finds he can’t reply in kind.
Within weeks, Asher confronts his congregation at the Cumberland Valley Church of Life, after the two men seek to join it. He gives a sermon, rooted in New Testament Scripture, about the virtue of welcoming the stranger and the need to leave judgment to God. Asher’s words land like stones, and the congregation “knew this would be the last of his preaching here, for defying the church.” Meanwhile, the two men ask Asher about his performing their marriage; again, he hesitates, and the couple leaves. Lydia confronts Asher about the likelihood of losing his livelihood, and their argument ends with Asher moving out. The church votes to sever its ties with Asher, who, on his way out, gives a fiery meditation on judgment, one that a member of the congregation records and immediately goes viral.
From there, “Southernmost” becomes a reflection on the ways in which one man struggles to see beyond his own delusions.
The novel pivots on the relationship between the 35-year-old, disillusioned Asher and his son Justin, described at times as an old man in a young boy’s body. As he turns 9 in the course of the tale, Justin – diagnosed by a therapist with generalized anxiety disorder – often seems a clearer thinker than his emotionally knotted father. As a desolate Asher, having lost custody of Justin, takes him and drives to Key West, Fla., in search of Luke – Justin says he knows his mom and granny didn’t tell the whole truth in court about Asher’s strengths as a father. “But this still doesn’t feel right to run off like this.”
The narrative shifts from past tense to present as Asher and Justin tenuously root in Key West, connecting with Bell, the older, free-spirited owner of the Song to a Seagull inn, and co-worker Evona, a sultry, mysterious woman beset by her own troubles. Asher tries to figure out how to build a new life in a world where he and his son are the focus of Amber Alerts and news reports. As he tries to sort out his relationships with his son and ex-wife, Asher struggles to make sense of his own tangled ties with his mother, brother and father. His castigations of his ex-wife and her notions of faith – as well as his internal conflicts about faith, sexuality and moral responsibility – reveal how difficult it is for Asher to cast off the reflexive tendency toward judgment.
The strength in “Southernmost” lies in its exploration of the messiness of life. Time shifts unexpectedly, people ease in and out, motivations aren’t always clear, and some people’s stories get short shrift – just as in our everyday lives. The novel, told primarily though not exclusively through Asher’s point-of-view, resonates more as a tragedy than as a heroic journey.
By Silas House
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 338 pages
Silas House will be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in conversation with Algonquin Books’ executive editor Kathy Pories about his new novel.