The Hard to Catch Mercy, William Baldwin’s entrancing first novel, is bound to remind some readers of Mark Twain, especially of some of the bleaker pages of moral fables like The Mysterious Stranger and The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg. But Baldwin’s purpose is not to piggyback a Grand Master. He desires to remind us of Twain because he wants us to know “where he is coming from,” as the current slang phrase puts it.
Geographically speaking, he comes from McClellanville, South Carolina, a low-country village on the outskirts of Hell Hole Swamp, a place that in 1916 must have resembled quite closely his fictional locale, “Cedar Point.” His narrator, Willie Alison, describes this village as a “closed-in, private place” that differs entirely from the “wide-open universe” we all now inhabit. Literarily speaking, he comes from that bright-dark homeplace of the Southern spirit that Mark Twain and William Faulkner and Allen Tate (in his novel The Fathers) have so resonantly rendered for us. These writers are Baldwin’s forebears and he is not ashamed of them and not timorous about standing before or among them.
Nor should he be. The Hard to Catch Mercy justifies all its author’s confidence. It is a gripping tale and beautifully complicated as all three sides of the plentiful Alison family work out a single destiny. The family patriarch—100 years old and still going strong as the book opens—is Colonel William Thomas Alison. His mind is no longer trustworthy but he still retains some of the grandeur of a plantation owner, once the master of 106 slaves. “He had twelve children by two wives and almost lived forever,” his grandson Willie tells us, omitting to mention here the black side of the family, the Negroes who claim Alison paternity and live with the family as closely, as doggedly, and in a few cases almost as silently as their shadows.
The novel’s complexity is deceiving and may appear to an unprepared reader to be not quite coherent. The separate stories of Amy Mercy, Aunt Lydia, and King David Alison seem at first only episodes without much bearing upon one another, but the total design constellates these stories and a half dozen others into a powerful figure. The conclusion of The Hard to Catch Mercy is as melodramatic, as bloodcurdling even, as any film director could wish for, but it is carefully prepared in the best literary way and I doubt that even Henry James could deny that its excesses are dramatically necessary.
And when William Baldwin goes to excess he doesn’t stop at the fenceline. Everything is here: flood, fire, pestilence and storm, tears and blood by the hogshead, savage cruelty and ugly murder and heroic battle. This novel is a book of Revelations and the character who gives it its title, The Hard to Catch Mercy himself, is all Four Horsemen in one, a figure both shadowy and all-too-real, ghostly but horribly corporeal too, so much larger than life that death must be an integral part of his being.
The Hard to Catch (Mercy is his ironic surname) is the villain of the piece, and one of the most utterly satisfying monsters ever to disgrace the pages of a book. Baldwin enlisted Twain’s aid in creating this dread figure who is blood cousin to Huck’s cruel Pap and Tom Sawyer’s nemesis, Injun Joe. It is always a surprise to reread Twain because we forget the element of terror in his pages, the deep pitiless wilderness surrounding his sunny frontier towns, the mysterious midnights with their lurkers in darkness, the immanence of evil forces that no bolt or bar can keep out.
Here he is as he first appears to Willie Alison: “I’d never seen him up close, and even now his face was half hidden by a great flapping straw hat. Still, there was no mistaking the hardness in the man. The eves were bright and dark, sunk deep beneath shaggy eyebrows. Truly, he could have hypnotized birds the way a snake does, except nothing else about him was snakelike. His nose blossomed out in the center of the face like a misplaced rose, and beneath that spread a long drooping mustache that lifted away from the stained beard when he opened his mouth to spit tobacco. Half the front teeth on one side were missing. The clothes—the clothes didn’t fit.”
There is more of this particular description but these sentences are sufficient to dispel any notion that The Hard to Catch Mercy would make a good Cub Scout den mother. The rose metaphor is pungent and surprising and adds just the touch of incongruity needed to make the figure not only menacing but eerie. This eeriness increases as the story unfolds until at last its power verges upon the supernatural.
Just as in Twain’s fiction, the evil figure is able to do harm because the good people are after all not so very good. A cold and calculated hypocrisy and a sullen hubris divide the Alisons as a family and also as individuals. They have got into the habit of mistreating others, sometimes casually and without forethought, sometimes merely for the sake of convenience. The contempt that the Hard to Catch has for them is plainly deserved.
Not even young Willie is innocent. The final motive for the fury of the Hard to Catch against the Alisons is the death of his sister, Amy Mercy, an attractive lass who had captured the appetitive affections of most of the white males in Cedar Point, including even the Reverend Mr. Friendly. “Yes, I’d kissed her,” Willie Alison admits, “in the full and complete knowledge that the carnal mind is enmity against God. Was it a sin to kiss my cousin’s girlfriend? I can’t say that I gave it even a second thought.” He does think of it again, however, when he is forced to pay for this kiss with another, when the Hard to Catch forces him to pry open the coffin and kiss the dead Amy.
It is perhaps a commonplace of moral fiction that a thoroughly vicious character can look cynically into the souls of the respectable and find there the same qualities as in himself. When the Hard to Catch strips Willie literally naked, he says, “Ain’t much to you, is there?” His observation is not purely physical in nature.
In pointing out resemblances to earlier fiction, especially to that of Mark Twain, I do not mean to suggest that The Hard to Catch Mercy is in any way a derivative book. It is not; it is a highly original performance. But it is an old-fashioned story, unabashedly melodramatic, unashamedly moral in purpose, unblushing in its determination to entertain. It fills and overfills that neatest description of a good novel: it is both serious in its intentions and great fun to read. I can’t think of another contemporary writer who has made a more splendid debut than William Baldwin. Here is a writer I intend to keep reading. In fact, I’m sure I’ll keep reading over the years this same first book. It’s that good.
[The Hard to Catch Mercy, by William Baldwin (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books) 451 pp., $19.95]