R. Cathey Daniels grew up in Western North Carolina where her debut novel, Live Caught, is set; a novel welling from the heart. I sense truth in her landscapes, movement of river currents and the hot still air of a North Carolina summer. And behind this truth lies a terrifying darkness.
From the first perplexing paragraph, it was me who was caught, and by the time that page had finished, I had visions of Hogarth’s etchings and Picasso’s Guernica, scenes in which everyone’s got something bad happening, and if they don’t, it’s coming anyway. No one is safe, not even the reader. That’s the visual potency of Daniels’s writing.
This is Lenny’s story, a fourteen-year-old runaway, running from his two vicious abusive brothers, Jude and Frank—whose “experiments” resulted in Lenny losing an arm—and from his weak and oblivious parents, both seemingly away with the fairies. Leaving a pregnant girlfriend and stealing a trusting man’s money and his father’s skiff, Lenny navigates downriver towards the Atlantic, following a vague plan, until a storm dashes any hopes he may have had. Shipwrecked and trapped on the shore under a heavy log, with rising water threatening to drown him, Lenny is saved by a crazy old preacher, Damien, who takes him to his rural rectory, where he illegally farms marijuana to fund his wayward congregation and eccentric ideas: A world of a dysfunction that is peculiarly normalized. Even Lenny’s newfound friend, Raymond, keeps his own baby daughter stoned. Full of mistrust and a nagging fear that being discovered would send him home, Lenny recklessly burns the Preacher’s dope fields and runs away again. Clearly caught in a trap of his own delusions, it’s ten years before Lenny’s forced back home to confront every uncomfortable detail of his past. Ten years is a long time for a fourteen-year-old farm boy; and here, the book stays true to its dark beginnings: Going home means no one’s safe and things can never be the same again.
Daniels’s language drives this story, brilliantly illuminating its dark and diverse characters through dialogue that has echoes of Alex in A Clockwork Orange:
“Tie his hands, Frank.
Flip the rope around his neck, Frank.
Let go the wheels, Frank.”
Always with Lenny, the preacher, a shadow he just can’t shift: “What’s worse than your nose buried deep into the earth, Lenny, due to your own goddamn mistakes? … Go or Hold. It always comes down to that.” And descriptions of slow, yet urgent, movement through complex landscapes that mirror classic Hemingway: “…crawls parallel to the shore…river pebbles digging into his good arm and the seam of his stump, his feet floating behind. He angles further into the shallows and lies there, belly down. The river rocks up in his mouth, cold and gritty down his throat.”
A faced-paced journey, crammed with information; Daniels doesn’t take you by the hand, more yanks you through Lenny’s recurring nightmare before dumping you on your own shore to drown, a heavy log weighed across your chest. I’m reminded of Genet’s masterpiece of self-destructive genius, laid bare in The Thief’s Journal: a tale of survival that, like Daniels with Live Caught, doesn’t lose its nerve.
Lenny’s no lovable hero, the preacher no saint; in fact, any innocents here are destined to be dragged through the mud and scarred for life. But that doesn’t take any merit away from this superb book; and like most enriching books that slap you hard in the face: It’s an uncomfortable read. If Preacher Damien were to give a sermon on Live Caught, it might be a rant on the Importance of Choice: “Go or Hold, Buddo, Go or Hold.”
You have been warned.
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press
Publication Date: April 22nd, 2022
Reviewed by Ben Gilbert