Sunday, August 19, 2018
Books

Review: Kent Wascom's 'New Inheritors' a novel of love, power on the gulf coast

When a woman looks at the hands of the toddler who will become the main character of The New Inheritors, she sees "written in the lines of his palms a bird’s vision of the rivers and creeks that fanned across the region of his birth, the upper reaches of the coastal rim which spreads south in peninsular wings that shatter into island chains, enclosing the Gulf of Mexico. A place that is drowning or is already gone. The country under the country you may know."

The New Inheritors is the third mesmerizing historical novel by Kent Wascom, all of them set around the rim of the gulf and tracing an American dynasty, a family that begins with a penniless pioneer and, in three generations, accrues great wealth and bloody secrets. A New Orleans native and a graduate of the creative writing program at Florida State University, Wascom knows the territory. His style and subjects echo great Southern writers like William Faulkner and Harry Crews, continuing a tradition of recounting terrible things in deliriously beautiful language.

Wascom’s first novel, The Blood of Heaven, told the story of an orphaned boy named Angel Woolsack, whose life in the early 19th century on the frontier called West Florida (a territory that then stretched all the way to the Mississippi River) was shaped by the dark commingling of religion and violence. That twisted world view made him a wealthy man and a terror to everyone around him.

The series’ second book, Secessia, follows Angel’s last days and the childhood of his son, Joseph, in New Orleans during the Civil War, when the city’s occupation was overseen by the Union general known as "Beast" Butler; in that book, the skeins of religion and violence are knotted with racism, sexism and politics.

The New Inheritors takes the story into the early years of the 20th century. (It works as a stand-alone; Wascom fills in the outlines of the first two books.) The novel begins with another orphan: Isaac Patterson’s nameless father dies before the boy’s birth, and his mother abandons her baby son for a suicidal religious cult.

After his breathtaking rescue by an immigrant woman who was his mother’s lover, young Isaac spends time in an orphanage in Florida before being adopted by the Pattersons, a warm and well-off couple with two older sons. They encourage his obvious artistic talents (Isaac is based in part on painter Walter Inglis Anderson), and their home on Biloxi Bay is where he falls deeply in love with the Gulf of Mexico.

He spends days and nights on unpeopled islands, a pencil on a string around his neck, compulsively sketching the birds and sea creatures around him: "He painted for the same reason that he fished. The rod or the brush were bridges to the living world. He was only just beginning to understand this, what would be the direction of his art. To become closer with life, not to reproduce it from the eye of skeptic humanity."

Nearby Deer Island is owned by the Woolsack family, and there Isaac meets Joseph’s children, sons Angel and Red and daughter Kemper. After Isaac drops out of art school and spends the first half of his twenties "vagabonding" around the gulf coast, from Florida and Cuba to Mexico, he’ll return home to his fate: falling madly in love with the strong-willed Kemper, and sharing with her his love of the wild gulf.

Their intense love story is at the heart of The New Inheritors, but it’s a story of escape — mainly from the Woolsack family’s history. At one point after their marriage, Isaac thinks, "He hated these moments, when she sank into her family, punishing herself. Weighing herself down over and again with guilt that wasn’t hers, or shouldn’t be."

That guilt isn’t easy to evade. The first Angel Woolsack plundered the gulf coast and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, without a second thought. The ruthless plantation economy lived on long after the war that was supposed to end it, extending its brutal tendrils to the south. In Nicaragua, where the Woolsacks now are expanding their fortune with banana plantations, Angel’s namesake protects their wealth with extreme measures, "for Americans’ fruit was bought with quite a lot of other people’s blood."

Kemper’s elder brother has his personal secrets as well, secrets that will drive him out of the family. Angel, though, is never reckless, while Kemper’s twin, Red, combustible even as a child, seems to have inherited his grandfather’s tendency toward more extreme violence.

Isaac and Kemper manage a few happy years of life in the country, his paintings finding some success. But World War I looms: "The world as they knew it held a gun to its head."

In the grip of that war, the U.S. government rounded up Americans of German descent and held thousands of them in prison camps. They also arrested and imprisoned thousands of draft resisters — like Isaac.

The lovers will reunite, but other terrors threaten, including the 1918 influenza pandemic (which killed as many as 100 million people, more than half a million of them in the United States) and Red’s disintegrating sanity.

For two people who love a place almost as much as they love each other, it’s a cruel irony to end up living on the run. As her brother Angel writes to Kemper, "And maybe this is the problem of being American, your birthright is nothing but motion, your nativity goes back only to the point of the great theft, so we are always looking to be something we never can. Maybe that is why we’re always reaching, taking, in the hope that the next thing we grasp will be truly ours."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.
Follow @colettemb.

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