High As the Horses’ Bridles
by Scott Cheshire
Henry Holt & Co.; 320 p.
“They sit” begins Scott Cheshire’s remarkable debut, High As the Horses’ Bridles, a curt, evocative line that summons us to a 1980 Richmond Hill church where the young, prophetic twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk is about to give a sermon to a crowd of thousands. Laudermilk is, like his father and mother and the worshippers amassed there, part of a sect of Jehovah Witnesses that believes the world is nearing Armageddon, and that when it does the sinners’ blood will fill the streets and run as high as the horses’ bridles. This opening scene, unraveling in what feels like real time as it details the characters, their personalities, and the minute-to-minute occurrences at the church, stays particularly close to our main character Josiah, who wants nothing more than to steal a sandwich to fight his hunger pains and to receive recognition from his parents in the first pew. These innocent, age-linked traits eventually catapult us into a story that moves past religion, dogma, and world’s end, to one of a boy trying to reconnect with his emotionally vanquished, reality-confused father years after the allure of faith has passed him.
Flash-forward to 2005 when Josiah–now divorced, living in California, and barely clinging onto a failing computer business–returns to New York after he receives a call from his ex-wife, Sarah, telling him that his father, Gill, is sick. But more than just sick, talking funny too. Talking–and characters do a lot of it here–becomes one of the book’s transitional devices, used to show how Josiah, once profound and elegiac in his boyhood speech and mannerisms, is now flippant in some regards, able to view his father’s pious ramblings as insane, as if they were the clear signs of an imminent death. Armageddon, which the Laudermilk family had held in view like a distant, illustrious star, now becomes real, earth-like, as Gill slips deeper and deeper into what Josiah believes is mental illness. Or is it pure, unsullied clarity?
Josiah’s New York journey is parsed by his memories of Sarah, his time spent in California, and, most importantly, his dreams and visions. Josiah, who, save for the first and last parts, narrates this textile of memory, takes to elegiac, contemplative passages in between the rapid, plot-driven scenes where he revisits his childhood, old Queens household, and the people who had informed or dissuaded his beliefs. And as much as this novel is about the manifestation and consequential ruin of dreams and family, it is a novel about Queens, where its people are as colorfully connected to the faith they are espousing. In an eloquent sequence where Josiah tells us how his childhood friend Issy one day vanished, Cheshire writes, “We pondered things other than love. We pondered big things like death, but in the same way we had mulled over love on the roof with those girls, wondering how it might feel…Death had a hard shell, then, black and metallic. And then, one day—did we go too close?—my friend Issy disappeared.” Josiah is guided by grandiose concepts of love, death, family, faith, and sin, but it is the practical, real-life rendering of these concepts that Cheshire writes so skillfully, using Queens as a backdrop through which generations and generations of people “try out” their lives. Or as Josiah tells himself at one point, “The world is alive before we get here.”
The paradigm of looking at death from afar, a la hypothesizing one’s fate, and up close, a la the intimate, systematic breakdown of Josiah’s father, is a particular balance informed by Josiah’s dreams and visions: visions of his dead mother, of a giant white horse, of Sarah. But when Josiah states quite earnestly, “What is a vision anyway?…you don’t really see anything,” we come to trust that whatever passes through his wild imagination must too be real. This is because Josiah—as narrator, fickle spiritualist, son, man—uses fantasy to explain everything that is complexly cryptic about relationships and the world. It is safe to say that he is no longer the confident (though was he ever?) boy the church crowd had been captivated by twenty-five years earlier, but someone who is trying to cling on to a roving notion of love, which affects all and is controlled by no one. It’s a hard concept to grasp, regardless of age. Cheshire, who I have known for some time while editing Tottenville Review, is well-versed in how to distill this love story and make it fresh, playing with our expectations of family, and the myriad ways people come and go.
Josiah is as unsure of the world as we are about his convictions. There are countless times we see him playing catch-up to his own life: literally trying to speed closer to Sarah when they are running on the beach during one of their first dates, watching his sole employee, Amad, run his store more competently than he can, even falling prey to his father’s glimpses of emotional lucidity. Cheshire’s habit of switching between past and present, east and west, and skipping through memories, eventually leads us to a final part that finds a prior generation of Laudermilks in 1801 Kentucky, written to theatrical, staggering effect. Cheshire has effectively led us to water with this chilling conclusion, and has shown us that before we are to see the other side, we must first look at our own reflections. That is the true price of memory.
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