The Blood of Heavenby Kent Wascom
“Every page of Kent Wascom’s debut struck me with its beauty and ugliness. . . . This is not, like most novels, a glimpse of a life. It is a life.” —Esquire
The Blood of Heaven is the tale of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son who at the dawn of the nineteenth century flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father. He soon falls in with a charismatic highwayman, and then settles with his adopted brothers on the violent frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate, to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries who, together with the renegade founding father Aaron Burr, are plotting to break away from the young United States.
“Young Kent Wascom went down to the crossroads and there he made his deal. Or maybe he was just born spirited for this kind of work. Either way, I cannot name such a stunning debut as this one. The writing pours from the American gut, the America we have yet to reckon with. It reads as not written, but lived and remembered–and how impossible is that? Whoever may own Kent Wascom’s soul, The Blood of Heaven will forever be ours.” —Robert Olmstead
“Making brilliant use of a little-known chapter in America’s history, Wascom’s gripping debut captures the pioneer spirit, lawlessness, and religious fervor of the Southern frontier. . . . In its depiction of a primitive, savage era and of man’s depravity, as well as its sensitive portrayal of souls ‘drowned in the blood of Heaven,’ Wascom’s novel is a masterly achievement.” —Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)
“[The Blood of Heaven] entertains with its energetic language and fast-paced action, and the love story between Angel and his wife is moving in its you-and-me-against-the-world naïveté. Wascom’s research is put to good use as the gargantuan forces of history squash Angel and his associates.” —Ayana Mathis, New York Times Book Review
“When you read as many contemporary novels as I do, it’s easy to get jaundiced, because we’re awash in hype, and almost nothing ever seems quite as good as it’s cracked up to be. So please know that I’m not just giving this young author a pass. I truly can count on the fingers of one hand the number of first novels that have ever excited me this much. Wascom made me think at times of Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier and William Gay, but his vision is very much his own, as is his extraordinary voice. He’s left himself a hard act to follow. This book is pure gold.” —Steve Yarbrough
“Angel Woolsack forsakes life with his itinerant preacher father to follow a daring highwayman, then ends up wending his way from on-the-edge West Florida to the bordellos of Natchez, the plantations of Mississippi, and finally New Orleans, where Aaron Burr is leading efforts to create a new country. It’s a brave and bloody new world, captured with energy.” —Library Journal
“In the present age of cultural strife and national re-definition, a brilliantly resonant novel blooming from America’s ever-thus history is just what the zeitgeist deserves. And The Blood of Heaven is as achingly beautiful in its personal story as it is savagely clear-headed in its national story. Kent Wascom has arrived fully-formed as a very important American writer.” —Robert Olen Butler
“The young Master Wascom arrives at our gates wielding a narrative broadsword, speaking in a monstrous voice, a Louisiana visionary in command of an army of bones and by God he comes to conquer. It’s been more than a decade since the literary world has seen such a portentous debut from a novelist prodigy, equal parts savage and savant, and what else is there to day but All hail the future—this boy king has fifty more years of writing to feed our hungry souls.” —Bob Shacochis
“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.” —Financial Times
“An exceptionally eloquent and assured debut by a novelist who is still only in his twenties.” —Sunday Times
“Written in vivid hellfire-and-damnation prose . . . Wascom has already been hailed as an important new US writer.” —Metro
“Wascom is a craftsman, and each of his lengthy, winding sentences shimmers with the tang of blood and bone and sweat, and the archaic splendor of his language.” —Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe
“Rendered in lurid, swamp-fever prose swollen with biblical imagery (Burr first appears in the book on horseback, ‘hailed like Christ Himself’), the South of Mr. Wascom’s imagination is an inferno of plague, vice and slave trafficking. . . . It’s that dizzying pace, especially as Angel sets off on a Tarantino-esque rampage of revenge killings, that makes the book so compelling. Mr. Wascom’s writing rolls from the page in torrents, like the sermon of a revivalist preacher in the grip of inspiration. You can’t help listening, no matter how wicked the message.” —Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“Though he’s not yet 30, Mr. Wascom has the gift, the elusive ‘it’ that tells you on the first page that here is someone worth reading. . . . In its best moments, and there are many, you will slip completely into Wascom’s fictional world. . . . You will also be in the presence of a young writer whose talent is obvious, whose sense of narrative is classical and clear, whose understanding of the craft is deep and well-formed and will only get better.” —William Martin, New York Journal of Books
“The work of a young writer with tremendous ambition, a bildungsroman of religion and revolution set during an obscure chapter of American history. . . . [Wascom] creates a first-person narrator who speaks with fire-breathing eloquence, tormented by God and the Devil and equally conversant with both. . . . Wascom writes with a fire-breathing, impassioned eloquence. Angel’s voice compels our trust from the beginning and echoes all the ghosts of the dark Southern past.” —Rodney Welch, Washington Post
“If you thought the Wild West was wild, wait until you read about West Florida. In Kent Wascom’s stunning debut novel that territory serves as microcosm of a nation’s dark and violent infancy. . . . With its setting, its violence-driven plot and its resonant and often harshly beautiful language, The Blood of Heaven evokes comparison to the work of Cormac McCarthy. Its mordant humor and its exploration of slavery and violence as the tragic flaws at the heart of American history—as well as its awareness of what hellish danger awaits those who are sure God is on their side—recall such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain. Angel is a terrifying and irresistible narrator, and Kent Wascom is a striking new voice in American fiction.” —Miami Herald
“Wascom’s West Florida makes the Old West look like a Disney resort in comparison, and his protagonist is a fitting emissary for this harsh and unforgiving land. . . . Whether describing a tender moment between husband and wife or a brutal revenge killing, there’s no question of Wascom’s range. . . . There is plenty here to applaud in this grim portrait of a dysfunctional frontier family caught up in a forgotten American war.” —Drew Toal, NPR Books
“Kent Wascom, a 26-year-old Louisiana native, has produced an astonishingly assured debut. . . . He is more knowing than a writer his age has any right to be and displays a virtuosic command of biblical cadence and anachronistic vernacular without striking any false notes.” —Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle
“Angel Woolsack forsakes life with his itinerant preacher father to follow a daring highwayman, then ends up wending his way from on-the-edge West Florida to the bordellos of Natchez, the plantations of Mississippi, and finally New Orleans, where Aaron Burr is leading efforts to create a new country. It’s a brave and bloody new world, captured with energy.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“The Blood of Heaven is sharply intelligent”extremely violent, constantly profane, darkly comic and very angry. . . .[But] the anger is rooted in moral outrage, so it’s on the side of the angels.” —Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch
“Wascom’s setting fascinates, while the veneer of violence makes us eager spectators in this narrative of American conquest and survival. . . . Ultimately, Wascom skirts around Faulkner’s Mississippi, o’Connor’s Georgia, and McCarthy’s divided interests of Tennessee and Texas to firmly plant his stake in America’s Deep South. It is a wise move. In The Blood of Heaven, Wascom paints a fuller portrait of the American South. Though he makes strong overtures to these Southern writers and their territory, Wascom makes it his own.” —Shelby Smoak, Washington Independent Review of Books
“Kent Wascom has written a rollicking historical thriller, a juicy love story, religious symbolism, a tale of woe, adventure, lust, manhood, money-chasing, nationhood, and religious and racial bigotry in early 1800s America. . . . Early American history was raw and gritty, and Wascom deals in that hard-boiled reality, but it’s balanced by a polished and eloquent prose style that has a certain Old Testament quality to it, which gives the tale its unique flavor and gravity. . . . Wascom engages America’s original sin with real force and seriousness; indeed, there are brutal passages that detail this incredible evil as the real-life horror show it was, and truly show America’s complicity in a moral abhorrence.” —Chris Timmons, Tallahassee Writers Association
“Sweeping themes of good and evil–along with colorful, visceral language and breakneck action–combine in this earthy tale.” —Joanne Sullivan, The Asheville Citizen-Times
“Though it says nothing good about America’s progress that we can still be seduced by a killer and slave-merchant with a coal-burnt silver tongue, this is precisely Wascom’s point. The myths of the founders are our myths, too, and they are myths that I hope Wascom continues to aim at.” —David Burr Gerrard, KGB Bar Lit Magazine
“In elegant, lucid prose, fiction newcomer Kent Wascom brings the frontier, in all its violence and disorder, to stunning life in The Blood of Heaven. . . . Wascom is not yet 30, but he infuses his story with a wisdom, awareness, and clarity well beyond his years. . . . Angel’s hold on us never wavers but intensifies. The Blood of Heaven proves Wascom is a trailblazer whose brilliance is not a one-off but a true and rooted fact.” —Jaime Boler, BookMagnet
“Set in the early part of the 19th century, Kent Wascom’s debut novel is an evocative and searing read despite being bleak and peppered with scenes of extreme violence. . . . His voice is his own, unique and haunting. I know of no other author who can more completely transport his readers to the era he wishes to portray. . . . Wascom is an incredible talent.” —Kim Kovacs, BookBrowse
“It’s gritty, visceral, and extremely memorable. It is a portrait of a time and era that is worthy of our attention.” —Shelf Awareness
“Kent Wascom. . . gift[s] us with an historical titled The Blood of Heaven that’s more than history.” —Library Journal Blog, “Fiction Breakout”
“Oh America, heartbroken and constantly fought over! The Blood of Heaven is a dark hymn to the ruthless and ruinous early days in the Louisiana fringes of our republic. In the tradition of As I Lay Dying and Flannery o’Connor and Blood Meridian, idiomatic and far off into transgression, this one, from Kent Wascom, bless his genius, is the real deal.” —William Kittredge
“The Blood of Heaven is a brilliant comic rant that, with its twisted religious fervor, holds on to the reader and does not let go. Kent Wascom takes a nugget of colonial history—the Aaron Burr Conspiracy—and imbues it with a fiery life. His is a singular, important, and utterly vital voice.” —Sabina Murray
“Wascom’s language, gorgeous, expressive, and raw, flawlessly matches his vision of the unruly southern frontier before it latched onto the U.S. . . . Seeing early nineteenth-century America through the eyes of an ambitious, trigger-happy renegade makes for an exhilarating yet brutal ride. Wascom imbues this under=explored era with visceral authenticity.” —Booklist
Shortlisted for the David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction
Longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan Award for First Fiction
A June 2013 Indie Next Selection
One of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Summer Books of 2013
Summer Reading Pick, SpiritOne of NPR’s Great Reads for 2013
When I came again into the bedroom, I found Red Kate sitting up with her lamp lit and belly piling the sheets.
I worried you were dead, she said.
I sat beside her and put a hand to her belly, wherefrom issued a kick of a tiny foot, and I was filled even more with grace and glory.
If I died, I said, You’d know because the very ground would split and there’d be a sound of thunder.
You’re wild, she said.
The world will know when I pass out of it, I said. And the mark I leave will be great.
Red Kate pressed a finger to herself, where she thought was our child, and said, This is your mark. Nothing more. And don’t forget it.
The widow Cobb’s face was ashen when she drove me out of the house that night as the birth began.
I didn’t want to leave, for the last I’d seen of Red Kate was her face twisted in pain before the widow blew the lamp out, saying that there must be darkness or she might go into a fever for the oppressiveness of light. This was the last day of April, and Reuben happened to be there, and he along with Samuel hauled me outside to the store, waking Ransom, and put a cup of gin in my hand. It was before midnight, and I’d been awakened to a wet bed and shuddering wife; and her hair, darkened and matted down with sweat, looked so much like streams of blood that I was terrified.
The Blood of Heaven, to be perfectly honest, does not read like a debut novel. Can you tell me about your personal reading and writing history?
Reading and writing have been a constant comfort, a security blanket of sorts. The love of both came in the learning. In the months before my father was to serve his sentence in federal prison, knowing that for the next several years he would miss many of the milestones enjoyed by parents, he decided to teach me three things: To tie my shoes, to ride a bike, and to read. All three were accomplished to varying extents before he left, but it was reading that would dominate my life. My love of books soon grew into a compulsion to write. (A sure guarantee of playground ridicule is to say you want to be a writer while others yearn to be firemen and astronauts.) When I was twelve I wrote my first novel (about Prohibition-era bootleggers if you can believe it), and by the end of college I’d written four more. The Blood of Heaven is my sixth, but the first to be published.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a story set in the frontier, your characters skirt the edge of lawfulness even on their best behavior. Can you tell us about your fascination with outlaws?
Honestly, there was no way for me not to focus on those of the extralegal persuasion. My family tree is somewhat laden with, let’s say, rogue apples: bank-robbers, smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and the women who endured and assisted them. As a child I would listen avidly to the stories of relations who blew holes in bank walls, paid escaped slaves for alligator hides, ran guns to dictators and revolutionaries, sewed suits for a nephew to use after prison-breaks. These stories were always told in loving, jubilant tones, what I see now was a pleasant lack of hypocrisy, an acknowledgement of fallibility and the conditions which force someone to skirt legality. I hope that I’ve brought something of that perspective to bear on my characters, who in many ways contain traces of my family history.
Louisiana has a long history of political corruption, a legacy that persists to this day. As a native son of Louisiana, what impact did the landscape, the culture, your family have on crafting The Blood of Heaven?
As you may find in the novel, the American iteration of the state itself was birthed from back-room dealings. With such parentage, what else can be expected? What makes Louisiana so unique, and to outsiders so aberrant, is the vivacity and artfulness with which our leaders skirt the law. I’d add that the more famous examples of the Long brothers and Edwin Edwards accomplished great things for the people of the state, while also reaping certain benefits, and did so without the cloying moral sanctimony currently in fashion. Because my father and grandfather were local politicians, both of whom had their own run-ins with the law, I’ve benefited from an insider’s perspective, from the near-endless tales of deals and escapades. This sort of education engenders a more nuanced view of policy and the people who make it. At the heart of politics lies the struggle between base desires and noble aspirations, and the circumstances of the Louisiana Purchase and Burr’s venture proved fertile ground to examine this conflict.
The Blood of Heaven is steeped in religion, which serves as both motivation and justification for immoral acts. The relationship between religion and show business, politics, war, and revenge, is a constant theme throughout the novel. Can you tell me about your inspirations here, personally and historically?
From early on I’ve had a sort of dueling fascination and disgust with religious fanaticism and its evangelical criers, coming to fruition in the characters of Angel, Preacher-father, and the Reverend Morrel–men who can justify any act, no matter how vile, by assigning its inspiration to God.
When, as a child, I came to live in Pensacola, Florida, the town was suffering a series of terrorist attacks on local women’s clinics. Hearing that the men who committed these acts did so in the name of God scared, first in the figurative sense and much later in the literal, the hell out of me. Not only that people were capable such deeds, but perhaps the Lord smiled down upon them as they pulled the trigger. Though I was brought up in a very tolerant home, I did my time in various churches and a short stint at a parochial school. Nothing traumatic, but having to write “I will not take the Lord’s name in vain” 250 times a day for a week, or scrub urinals for some blasphemous offense, tends to instill a suspicion of religion’s man-made origins. What began as questions puzzling a young boy’s mind developed into both a distaste and a discerning eye for religious hucksterism and bigotry, neither of which are in short supply in both the modern world and the world of my book. Of course, The Blood of Heaven isn’t a polemic. I truly wished to understand what drives those who, as William Blake said, live “with all the fury of a spiritual existence.” This divinely mandated rage is something with which our society contends on a daily basis, beset from within and without. To treat such men reductively, to make them one-dimensional, would be a disservice to the reader and a shirking of one of the more pressing questions of our time.
What drew you to set the novel in West Florida and the 19th century?
I’ve lived for most of my life in the area that was then known as West Florida, between Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Pensacola, Florida. The culture of my region, particularly along the coast, is markedly different from that of its respective states, and the idea (for the most part unacknowledged or forgotten) that we were once a distinct and separate entity battled over and conflicted, seemed to me a memory that needed reclaiming. The traumas of the last decade, the hurricanes and oil spill, were certainly grim inspirations, and moreover the act of writing about the area became a sort of catharsis. The choice of the particular time, the turn of the nineteenth century, came from many different factors, one of the more peculiar being the discovery that I am descended from a man named Aaron Burr Patterson. He was born in Natchez, Mississippi, almost a year to the day after Burr’s visit in 1804, and family legend holds that his people gave the embattled Burr some assistance in his later attempt to elude the authorities. The discovery of this ancestor led me to Burr himself, and in part the germinal idea of the novel.
Can you tell us some more about the historical research you did to make the novel historically accurate—it certainly feels meticulously crafted in that regard.
While I appreciate the compliment, I must say that The Blood of Heaven is overwhelmingly a work of imagination, at best fiction containing tracery elements of fact. Any historian familiar with the period and events should rightly want my head on a pike if I said otherwise. Not to say that I wrote the book with flippant disregard for historical accuracy, but that I was more beholden to the story I wished to tell, the world as I saw it, than anything else.
My research was a piecemeal affair, a catch-as-catch-can sort of process which grew more comprehensive with each succeeding draft of the book. At the time I was writing The Blood of Heaven, I was both a graduate student and, later, a full-time high school teacher, neither of which provide the resources of time or money conducive to intensive research. What my situation did allow was access to the libraries of LSU and FSU, where I found what information I could in order to construct the skeleton of fact I’d fictively flesh.
The dearth of readily-available sources about the incidents in West Florida, the Kemper Rebellion in particular, was a blessing of sorts, allowing me ample room for invention. In fact, perhaps the most complete examination of the affair, William C. Davis’s fabulous The Rogue Republic, was published as I was finishing the final draft of the book. Davis’s work was extraordinarily helpful in this regard, as its meticulous detailing the Kempers’ endeavors gave me a yardstick by which to better measure my deviations from fact, as well as a wealth of theretofore unknown detail (that they kept house on Bayou Gonorrhea!) and incident.
If I’ve done my job well, then I’ve produced the iron pyrite to the historians’, like Davis, gold. For all appearances, it shouldn’t be confused with the real thing.
Were there works of fiction or nonfiction that provided a spark of inspiration to The Blood of Heaven?
While I was at LSU, just as I was discovering many of the writers whose work would influence my own–the short stories of Barry Hannah and Isaac Babel, the brutally beautiful novels of Harry Crews, Yukio Mishima, and Cormac McCarthy—I also stumbled on a little pamphlet from the 1930s called The Story of the West Florida Rebellion by Stanley Clisby Arthur. This slim volume, originally a series of newspaper articles, introduced me to the turbulent world of West Florida. A trip to the special collections gave me his Story of the Kemper Brothers, and the spark caught.
Similarly, reading Borges’ story “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” sent me into the stacks, where I found Reverend Devil by Ross Phares. The character of the slave-stealing preacher stuck with me so that when, years later, I began The Blood of Heaven, I couldn’t deny my own version of the wicked man a place in the novel. When Angel and Samuel had escaped to Natchez, there he was. In reality, Rev. John Murrell was only a small child in the early 1800s and much more of a crude rake than the polished showman who acts as mentor to the pair.
I’m curious about your sources for dialogue and vocabulary in the book. Are they from original sources?
I would be utterly remiss to not begin by thanking my editors, whose careful efforts saved me from several anachronistic pratfalls, not to mention helped weed out some occasionally murky period dialect. Writing about the distant past carries with it the same difficulty as writing about people of distinct speech—if you use too much “local color”, be it overindulgence in regional dialect or period syntax, you risk the frustration and confusion of the reader. I tried to avoid both. As it stands, the cadences and phrasing as they appear in the book are more the result of osmosis and adaptation than a direct attempt at reproduction. That said, my readings of letters, journals, and court documents provided a rich base from which I wildly strayed.
Of these sources, one you may find interesting is the 1786 edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of British criminal and lower-class cant. As many of my characters, not to mention the country itself, weren’t far removed from the Sceptered Isle, I felt justified in using certain turns of phrase. Many of which were so wonderfully nasty that I couldn’t resist including them in the book. The definition of “biter”, for example, which brothel-owner Aliza uses to insult her former employee, Red Kate, is extraordinarily dirty and evocative: “A wench whose **** is ready to bite her a*se; a lascivious and rampant wench.”