By Amy Rowland
WHEN GHOSTS COME HOME
By Wiley Cash
290 pp. Morrow. $28.99.
Oak Island, a beach town tucked inside North Carolina’s coastal elbow, is in its off-season when a plane crashes onto the local airstrip. By the time investigators arrive, the ghostly DC-3 has been emptied of cargo and swiped of fingerprints. The only evidence is a dead Black man found in the grass off the runway.
It’s October 1984, and Sheriff Winston Barnes is preparing to lose re-election to Bradley Frye, a developer whom Barnes calls “a soft-handed daddy’s boy who grew up with money and mistook it for brains.” While investigating the crash, hoping the case might help him at the ballot box, Barnes is also contending with family trouble. His wife has cancer and his daughter, Colleen, is home mourning the loss of her child.
Cash is a good storyteller, capturing the cadence of Southern speech and the complexity of modest lives with thoughtful intelligence. Class distinctions are cleverly revealed in ranch houses decorated with brown shag carpet, olive green rotary phones and white wicker furniture, where a “green plastic pitcher of sweating sweet tea” always waits. Meanwhile, Frye’s fancy Plantation Cove development has razed most of the trees except for the grand mossy oaks that suggest a past some residents wish to reclaim. The problem is that this suspenseful Reagan-era story of a Southern sheriff haunted by a violent act in his past seems most believable as the invention of a well-intentioned author writing in 2021. The bad characters are cartoonish ogres, who use a racial slur throughout the book, and go on “night rides, shooting off guns and flying the Confederate flag.”
It’s a comforting story that all racists are open and immediately identifiable, but also a distorting one. Racism is structural, and also insidious and pervasive, often hiding behind the smiles of Southern politeness. A progressive white sheriff in the 1980s South who is blindsided to learn that his co-worker of two decades is a bigot rings false in a novel that seems to redeem Southern liberalism, rather than fully exploring the deeper politics of place.
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