When we first read Wiley Cash’s debut novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” we knew he had the potential to be an important North Carolina writer.
Then “This Dark Road to Mercy” and “The Last Ballad” showed this potential was being realized.
Now we can see clearly, thanks to his fourth and latest, “When Ghosts Come Home,” that his potential has been realized in that he has become one of North Carolina’s, and the region’s, leading authors, combining literary excellence with stories that compel our attention and interest.
“Ghosts” takes place in southeastern North Carolina, near Wilmington, where Cash now lives. His leading character grew up in Gastonia, just like Cash.
His story, though set in 1984 Brunswick County, will be familiar to all North Carolinians who must deal with the special set of consequences our long history of race relations has bequeathed us, not just people who were alive in 1984, when the story is set.
Winston Barnes is sheriff of Brunswick County. It is Oct. 30, 1984. Barnes is running for reelection, and his prospects are not good. His opponent is a wealthy and popular local businessman and developer, who is also a blatant racist.
Should Barnes lose the election, he also loses his job and the health insurance that pays for his cancer-stricken wife’s treatment.
His only daughter, whose marriage is in deep trouble, is on her way home from Texas.
This is just the beginning of the sheriff’s troubles.
At 3:11 a.m. Barnes and his wife hear an airplane crash at the nearby county airport. He rushes there, finding only a deserted airport, an enormous crashed airplane, and just outside the plane, the body of a young black man shot in the chest.
No fingerprints or other clues can be found, but almost certainly drugs were involved.
Amazingly, Winston winds the investigation up within the week, or so he thinks. But the racial violence and hard feelings stirred up by Winston’s political opponent complicate life in Brunswick County. Cash uses the difficulties to give an inside look at rural and small-town North Carolina in 1984.
This complex situation opens the door for Cash to return to the themes of his earlier novels in which law enforcement officers must deal with the conflicting responsibilities of following the law and doing justice.
Barnes is criticized by his top deputy and loyal friend when he refuses to approve the arrest of a nephew of the black victim of the shooting at the wrecked plane sight. The nephew is clearly responsible for lighting fires in a new housing development, but Barnes finds justice on the side of the nephew.
Cash addresses this theme in all three earlier novels, perhaps more directly in “A Land More Kind Than Home.” In that book, another sheriff, Clem Barfield, at the other end of the state in Madison County, stretched the law to protect a vulnerable youth and an abused church congregation.
Winston was not a native of Brunswick, and Barfield was not a native of Madison. Even after many years, each carries the burden of not sharing the same early experiences as his neighbors.
In short, they often feel like outsiders who must work extra hard to gain the trust of the citizens they serve.
In the new book, Cash strikes a chord with those of us who will always be strangers in the places we have chosen to live.
More importantly, he gives us another great book, one that is enjoyable to read as well as provocative.
My 1984 election campaign, like that for Barnes, was a critical one for me. I was a candidate for the U.S. Congress. After first count, I was declared the winner. The World Almanac declared me winner. But the celebration was short-lived, as recounts showed my opponent won by a little more than 300 votes. Thirty-five years later, I can view my loss as a great blessing. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. In any event, my campaign, to the extent it paralleled that of Barnes, made my reading about his experience even more vivid.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.