To highlight the complexities of the human spirit, Walt Whitman wrote the famous words, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” This type of observation about the singular human experience can certainly be expanded in examining the communities in which we live — they too contain multitudes. Kasey Thornton wonderfully captures this truth as she explores the complicated dynamics of the rural South in her transcendent debut novel-in-stories, Lord the One You Love Is Sick.
Thornton’s collection, which consists of stories revolving around residents of small town Bethany, North Carolina, finds its narrative link in the varying repercussions following the tragic overdose of 23-year-old Gentry Coats.
Following Gentry’s death, the young man’s family and friends deal with even more pain. Dale, Gentry’s closest friend, has a mental breakdown, fracturing his once stable marriage and career path. Gentry’s mother, Nettie, grows angrier and more alone. Nettie’s younger son, Ethan, retreats into the basement and seeks comfort in his own loneliness. As time passes and it seems that Bethany might be ready to settle, another scandal — this time one involving the horrific abuse of two young girls — hits the other side of town. As so many people in Bethany suffer, the town’s old men sit around doing nothing but gossiping at their “Table of Knowledge” about the need for stauncher conservatism and the lack of religion in schools.
Thornton’s book is slim in size, but don’t be fooled. This is a collection that packs a mighty punch. Much of the book’s force comes from its dynamic cast of characters. Thornton crafts her characters to come alive in an authentic way, allowing us to see their flaws and empathize with their pain.
The stories “Still Waters” and “Trespasses,” which follow the progression of Dale’s breakdown, are particularly successful in how they capture Dale’s truths (and layers) as a character. At first, in “Still Waters,” we follow alongside Charlie, his wife, as she tries to reckon with the sudden aggression of her husband. Then, as he’s put on leave from his job and spins further out of control, at the opening of “Trespasses” we find Dale in a psyche ward writing facts about the death penalty in crayon. He writes, “New York built first electric chair, 1888,” “‘more humane’ than hanging or firing squad,” “black mask protected dignity of victim,” “able to keep eyeballs from falling out.” He also deals with the haunting of Gentry’s voice, which he hears often. Dale is violent. He’s erratic. He struggles to understand his condition: “He was only here to appease his wife and his boss. He was fine.” As we progress through these stories, Thornton allows us to witness Dale at his worst — and also when he hopefully begins to heal.
So many of the characters go on journeys like Dale’s. They might exist in darkness for a while, but there’s always hope they’ll find the light.
The topics Thornton explores in Lord the One You Love Is Sick are just as varied as the characters who inhabit the collection. Through Dale’s experiences, we turn our attention to redemption and recovery. Nettie and Ethan’s arcs show us how important it is to love both ourselves and those around us who offer compassion.
Even the townspeople, who initially appear as seemingly minor characters, play an important part in giving Thornton’s collection an added depth. It’s these characters who help us understand the complicated politics of Bethany by highlighting the existence and impact of moral hypocrisy in small towns. In one of the book’s most striking stories, “Green Pastures,” we see this perhaps best when members of the local choir learn that no lawyer in town wants to represent the man who sexually abused his two daughters, but we learn that these supposed good folks find it “equally scandalous” that “Mary Overton took three Sundays off to get plastic surgery.” This moment, after previous ones in which we learn how others “talked mess about Nettie and Gentry on their way to church,” allows us to see the community of Bethany as it really is. No, it’s not the utopia its residents want to believe. Instead, it’s a place that has its fair share of pain, secrets, and lies.
While it might be easy to condemn small towns with problems like the ones in Bethany, Thornton refuses to take that route. Instead, in a calm, steady approach that captivates from the first page until the last, Thornton shows us the importance of keeping hope — there’s always the possibility of redemption through grace.
Lord the One You Love Is Sick
By Kasey Thornton
Published November 17, 2020