But first they sit. They face the empty stage, awaiting the opening song and prayer, the first speaker of the day to take the stage.
Not just any stage beneath any painted sky. Up there, you'll find no less than the heavens of Venice. You want proof – the famed Rialto Bridge, one tenth of its original size, a reconstruction, spans the top width of the stage. The favorite bridge in a City of Bridges, burned once, twice fallen, and both times a crowd collapsed with it. Down they fell under the waters of Venice. Which means the audience, here, in the grand Queens Howard Theater, tucked on a wide city street between a mechanic's garage and a Mexican takeout, are assembled in something like a dry canal. More than four thousand worshippers sitting, and anxiously waiting for the day's first prayer for His Kingdom Come on Earth as It Will Be in Heaven, and the long falling rain of salvation, falling stars, blackened sun, and fiery burning rain, for the coming of His Holy War and Christ. They pray for Armageddon, End of Ends, Great Bringer of all meaning in Death. And the worshippers are both a sum and parts, a throng, a sea of people beneath a decorative replica of the real-world Rialto. But, sure as any day, you can walk this bridge spanning the Howard's stage, and some actually do, mostly maintenance men tending to the delicate bridge's woodwork. Like a painted crown it spans the stage beneath the stars of Venice, City of Bridges, of Water, of Light.
Howard Theater, Theater of Lights, every heavenly star is here. (pp. 4-5)
For many of us today, there is another F word. It may not trigger Parental Advisory labels or bring down the wrath of the FCC if uttered on American TV, yet open discussion of it can make people as skittish as if they had to discuss their sexual history. Yet Faith, to capitalize this particular F word in order to underscore its quiet loudness, is a key part of so many peoples' lives even in secular societies. It may be something that we think we have abandoned along with beliefs in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but in moments of crisis it lurks, waiting to burst our internal dams and flood our emotional states. Yet faith is something that rarely is explored in depth in fiction. Sure, how someone lacks faith or loses it can make for great literature, but that central element of faith is usually circumscribed. This perhaps isn't as much due to authors not having clue to what it entails, but more likely due to a reticence to exploring something so personal and yet so universal. In a day and age when various conceptualizations of belief and non-belief are thrown about as though they were competing sports teams or political parties, complete with ready-made commercial jingles to condense any nuances into marketable, memorable catchphrases, it seems at times as though discussing faith of any sort is fraught with peril.
Therefore, my interest was piqued when I read a blurb for Scott Cheshire's debut novel, High as the Horses' Bridles (the title is taken from a passage in Revelations concerning the depth to which the blood of unbelievers would flow). The author, a former Jehovah's Witness child preacher, has written a tale of a former child preacher in Queens who decades later has come back to New York to take care of his ailing father after his mother has died. Much has changed in the life of young Josiah/Josie from that fateful day in 1980 when he gave a powerful sermon to 4000 congregants. He had a crisis of faith and abandoned his church while his father went the opposite way, becoming more and more fervent in his faith in the Bible and the "codes" for life and apocalypse that might be embedded within it. Too easily this could have been a book about how family members split over widening differences in belief or it could have been a tale of too-easy reconciliation and a facile patching-over of disagreements. Yet this book is neither one of these things and for that, it possesses an inquisitive, reflective quality to it that makes for a thought-provoking read.
High as the Horses' Bridles is divided into three main sections, two of which, 1980 and 2005, deal with Josiah/Josie and his father at different points in their lives. In truth, the 1980 section comprises only a tenth of the novel and it is different in tenor, being more an encapsulation of fervent youthful faith told through vivid images, such as the scene quoted above. The second comprises four-fifths and deals with Josie's conflicted feelings about his childhood and how the issue of faith seems to have separated him from his now-ailing father. This section is more mundane in its description, as there are no clarion calls to await the Second Coming. Instead, there are scores of flashbacks to the intervening years, as the material world has slowly eroded Josie's faith. He is not left feeling hollow, per se, but he has difficulties in reconciling his childhood with his present life. As he resumes the care of his father and the two are in close physical proximity, issues that Josie had forgotten or presumed were buried slowly flood his thoughts. Thoughts of the Howard Theater, thoughts of what "high as the horses' bridles" meant, questions about how do the remnants of faith guide us in ways that we never really consider until after the fact. While the type of thoughts are not especially original in origin, there is such a tender earnestness to both Josie and his father's thoughts on the issue of faith that it is refreshing to see an effort made to explore these divides with understanding and not correctness being the primary goal.
Cheshire's prose eloquently captures the power that faith can have over lives. His descriptions of the father becoming more and more like a religious ascetic contrast well with his son's rather non-discrepant appearance sets the stage for the deeper, more personal differences. The certainty of the father's faith, balanced by the son's questioning of where he lost his, is captured excellently in this passage near the end of the second part:
His long hair moved, and a sleepy medicinal smell of bedclothes and of days long ago home sick from school, and of that terminal air you find in waiting rooms and clinics, and of my mother's soft and hairless camphorous head filled up my senses. I steadied myself and set him down on the sofa. Even if I could get to know all the space in my own skull, I'd never get inside of his. I combed back his hair and looked at his face. This was not a gullible man, not at all. I saw a man who was hungry and cunning in his own curious way, and was stubbornly still here, his lost and lank body afloat there on the mystery of the world. (p. 262)
It is this passage where Josie has a breakthrough. It is not a profound one, not something that changes his life, but rather it is a recognition that who he was and who he is are parts of something greater, something that he might not fully understand, but regardless is powerful. As the scene closes with an end, there is a sense of a new beginning, of a personal apocalypse that has just been unveiled. This then dovetails into the third section, set two centuries before during the Second Great Awakening, which retells much of the themes of the first two in a way that ties lives and faith together into a captivating mystery. At first, it seems incongruous to have a final section with different characters, yet this coda works because it revolves around the true central character, not Josie nor his father, but instead that ultimate F word. The theme of High as the Horses' Bridles may not appeal to everyone, but for those willing to give it a chance, it might just be one of the more powerfully-written debut novels published this year.