The American epic comes in many forms, encompassing an Aaron Copland composition, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood, or even walking through an art museum and falling into a trance looking at the paintings of Winslow Homer. We look, listen, or watch these works because they tell us what we long to know about ourselves as Americans; what’s wrong and what could be better. The characters might not find redemption, the colors the painter uses might not always portray a cheery future, and the stories might seem a little outlandish or even impossible, but there’s always the possibility of resolution, of hope.
Herman Melville understood this with his white whale; Theodore Dreiser did too. William Faulkner passed the idea down to Toni Morrison. James Baldwin saw it in the church, Cormac McCarthy in a dystopian future, Denis Johnson with CIA agents and solitary men of the Pacific Northwest, and Marilynne Robinson dealt with the women of Fingerbone, Idaho in Housekeeping. These authors have shown that the truly great American Epic is possible, but rare and profoundly special.
Scott Cheshire, with his astounding debut High as the Horses’ Bridles, joins that company, effortlessly delivering a beautiful and mysterious story that takes us from the stuffy churches of New York’s outer boroughs to California, and then — almost inexplicably, yet in a way that’s totally right — to Kentucky in the first years of the 19th century. It’s a book about religion, obsession, family, and how we can spend our entire lives searching for redemption, but never realize it’s easier to attain than beating our chests during services.
Josiah Laudermilk had a vision when he was 12. He’s uncomfortable admitting that because of his upbringing in the Brothers of the Lord church, but he had one. It isn’t what the book is about; he isn’t a prophet or even a false prophet lying about saving souls to make a quick buck, but it’s important to know because his childhood in the church is never far behind any sentence. As adult Josiah tries to make sense of his father slowly dying, his divorce, his business failing, and the world around him, you wonder if, after he abandoned the church, there’s anything left for him to fall back on.
Josiah has been drifting further and further away from the church, even as the end of the world looms closer and closer. Many personal events seem to reflect something larger in Josiah’s search for meaning: a friend named Issy — who Cheshire grants one of the best passages of the book to, a brilliant few paragraphs on the type of mostly innocent summer trouble that kids get into — mysteriously disappears, along with other kids in the neighborhood. Josiah meets a Hindu girl named Bhanu, who eventually becomes his first great heartbreak in such a way that the reader can’t help but be affected to the point where you might even find yourself having to put down the book for a second. People that meant a great deal to young Josiah haunt the entire book.
But the real and most compelling part of this sprawling story is Josiah’s relationship to his father, the man who was a “born salesman,” and was always selling his son on the idea that he was something special, maybe a little holier and better than other folk. His father is a tortured and obsessed soul searching for something that he doesn’t believe he will find on earth, and the relationship between the two is fraught. Josiah’s father’s slow decline, and the chance for redemption inherent in that breakdown, is the meat you chew on throughout this brilliant book, until Cheshire shows you what kinds of surprises he is able to pull. There are quite a few, but the greatest one is finishing High on the Horses’ Bridles and realizing it is one of the finest novels you will read this year.