Some stories have a certain miraculous quality. They reach out from the page and take up space in your mind – but instead of drawing your eyes deeper into the fantasy, they direct your attention outwards. You can’t help but think about the terrifyingly real life you live: the decisions you make, the way you see the world, and the person you’re becoming.
I’ve only read a few of these books in my life, and, surprisingly, there isn’t much of a pattern among them. They span different genres, centuries and cultures – books like East of Paradise by John Steinbeck, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Molasses Walker by Alan Garner and the Bible.
“Beasts of the Earth” by James Wade is one of those stories. It is a dark, heavy novel that follows the dual story of Harlen, a high school janitor haunted by his past, and Michael, a boy running away from his father’s abuse. This book is heartbreaking, but Wade manages to convey darkness and tragedy without slipping into overly emotional or cheap language. His prose achieves a unique balance between objectivity and poetry that gives this novel a meditative tone, almost like a folk tale.
And wrapped in all that elegant writing is a book that fearlessly deals with the most important questions in life: evil and death. Life is cruel, and people can be unspeakably evil – this reality has significant consequences for everyone, fictional or not. As Michael struggles to come to grips with the unimaginable evil that has been done to him, he meets several characters who have adopted different ways of understanding the world in all its messy glory.
First, there’s Remus—a hermit who lives alone in the woods—who takes Michael in when he has nothing and no one. Remus is respectable and kind and unequivocally good, full of poetry and intellect. He steadfastly refuses to believe in god, choosing instead to believe in the beauty that lurks behind every corner of this life, in hidden moments and quiet places.
While this may sound good on paper, if you expand his worldview outward and imagine the practice of such a belief, you end up with someone like Julian in Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” — always insisting on beauty and unable to admit anything less than picturesque, constantly shaping his world to be aesthetic and thus produces a life that is isolated, cold and ultimately a lie. Maybe there’s a reason why Remus lives alone in the forest — people can’t help but hurt and harm each other. Regardless, Michael had suffered too much abuse in the world to join Remus in his belief in the good and the beautiful.
Harlen, meanwhile, is someone who has also suffered great evil—and yet, he very clearly sees himself as part of the problem, as someone who is not only a victim, but also a perpetrator. Wade’s unflinching acknowledgment that the roots of such malevolent evil can reside in even the most righteous people is a rare thought in today’s culture of self-help and personal development books, and certainly something to ponder.
In the end, Harlen’s solution is to isolate himself. He seeks to minimize the evil in the world by cutting himself off from it; he refuses to add to what is already completely saturated, a world burdened and dripping with so much suffering and pain. In many ways, this is a logical solution – if it can’t do any good, it might as well minimize the bad.
The alternative is Deacon, Remus’ former lover and old friend, who comes to comfort Remus as he slowly dies. Deacon believes in grace — the miracle that allows us to coexist in intimacy with others, to show mercy and forgiveness when we inflict our broken selves on each other, when we hurt the people we love the most.
And in the midst of all this soul-searching, Michael does something I’ve never read in a novel before: he turns to religion.
I find that quite surprising for a book written in 2022; the population of self-identified religious individuals has declined significantly, a pattern that is expected to continue in the coming years. In my experience, this trend has been most visible in the field of public education. I’ve had history professors who “explain” religious miracles and biology professors who insinuate that religion is for stupid people who want to believe in a higher power in order to feel good about an otherwise meaningless existence. But “Beasts of the Earth” seems to paint a different picture.
In this novel, religion is sought by someone who does not shy away from the ugly parts of life and admits that there are things in this world that cannot be attributed to chance and nature. Michael sees that there is an evil too deep and malevolent to be natural, and a hurt that torments our souls too violently for humanity to be mere animals—which brings us to the idea of God.
Through “Beasts of the Earth” Wade writes about God. From the prologue to the last pages, he portrays God as aloof, callous and indifferent to human suffering. The underlying message is that if God works exists, such a god is not worth knowing or believing in.
Fortunately, this is just a book and my experience of God is not what Wade describes. The God I know is unimaginable mercy and love to the highest degree, one who “is close to the brokenhearted and saves the brokenhearted,” who weeps for the death of friends and bears all that is evil in the world upon himself. He is the pinnacle and source of all that is good and valuable, and the reason for hope in a broken world.
But the characters in “Beasts of the Earth” have no such hope. With a surprising twist in the second half of the novel, Wade’s conclusion seems to be nihilistic – better to be dead in the ground than alive to see this ugly world for what it is.
Regardless of whether you agree with the worldview it presents or not, this book certainly has some unequivocal merits. “Beasts of the Earth” wrestles with issues that most people would rather avoid, bringing them to light with fearlessness and poetry.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at [email protected].