A blurb from Philipp Meyer hails Scott Cheshire's debut novel, High as the Horses' Bridles, as "a great new American epic." At first glance, the page count of Bridles seems too slim to be an epic. But within its swift 300 pages, Cheshire's thematic scope is cast wide, capturing a number of deeply intertwined American ideas.
In many ways, the book is a lens into the expanse of American faith and how unshakable it is, even when that relationship is conflicted. From its opening pages, Bridles is heavily doused in apocalyptic language. Twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk delivers a doomsday prophecy to a crowd of four thousand parishioners, all of whom belong to a sect that closely resembles the Jehova's Witnesses. The scene is electric, rapturous.
At Housing Works Bookstore CafÃ© in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, where Cheshire wrote most of the novel, he explained his interest exploring America's roots"”founded on both religious and apocalyptic ideas.
"If you look at [the country's] very basic mission, which is 'to become a more perfect union', even that phrasing is about benevolence, which is ideally what religion is about: to become better and better and better," Cheshire said. "And there's something even kind of apocalyptic about it. You're striving to get better and better to get to a place of perfection."
High as the Horses' Bridles does a magnificent job unpacking great swaths of the American psyche through a much smaller, more specific family drama. There are strong traces of Cheshire's personal history throughout the book. After the first act, the novel jumps ahead twenty years. Josiah"”now Josie"”has returned to Queens to take care of his dying father after a decade away from the church.
Cheshire says the book's unconventional structure was not something he had planned from its inception. Josiah's prophecy from the first section was originally an 80-page stand-alone piece (in the book it's condensed to 35 pages). It would take Cheshire years to figure out where to take the story from there. He wrote numerous drafts of the next section before coming to a narrative that reflected his own confusion. Like Josie, Cheshire was raised in the Jehova's Witnesses and separated himself from his faith when he was in his twenties.
"I hit upon a voice that owned me not knowing what to do," Cheshire said. "That's really what loss of faith sounds like."
The third act (without giving away too much) jumps again to another distinct time and place, giving Bridles a unique, disparate structure that, against all odds, creates a cohesive story. The way each act works reminded me not of another book, but of the three films in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise series. Each of the subsequent movies makes the viewer rethink the context of the previous one. In Bridles, the different acts change the shape of the one that precedes it"”a clever and meaningful use of literary trickery.
So it's with High as the Horses' Bridles that Cheshire has managed to pack an American epic's worth of Americana in just a few hundred pages. There is one central irony about Cheshire though. For all of his obsessing over everything ending, Bridles is a striking debut novel that signals a bright future for Cheshire.
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan