Dreams, Existentialism and Nature: A Review of James Wade’s ‘Beasts of the Earth’
James Wade’s latest novel, Beasts of the Earth, begins with a dream sequence of “waves upon waves and the sun rising red…a world content—pacified by the soft smile of its creator.” An imagined place where “all things were purposed, and all things were just.” Nearly all the characters in this novel wrestle with some form of existential reflection and attempt to reconcile the unjust and evil of the world with their own dreams and faith. As the protagonist, Harlen LeBlanc, wakes from this dream, he is confronted with the cruelness of reality and the lingering trauma all around him. LeBlanc’s life is one haunted by his mysterious past. A quiet, reserved man of habit, he lives alone in his sparsely furnished duplex, dreaming of salvation and fulfillment, longing for connection and meaning in his life.
Wade impressively weaves together two different timelines, one about the middle-aged Harlen LeBlanc in Comal County, Texas, and the other about the young Michael Fischer from the bayous of Louisiana. While many years and miles apart, both sections are drenched in sadness. Wade astutely depicts both settings, the Louisiana and Texas landscapes coming to life with vivid characterization. Wade is able to capture the psyche of a Texas oil town especially well. A place devastated by generational poverty and lost jobs, once with a future, now a stifling and forgotten place no youth wants to stay in.
Beasts of the Earth is a leanly structured western, stripping the genre only to its most basic elements. This allows Wade’s prose and philosophical ideas room to shine. The writing exudes a sense of melancholy dreaminess, mirrored in his recurring symbols and philosophical themes. A pelican appears in the first pages and reappears again and again as a motif with greater meaning as the novel delves deeper and deeper into the soul of its protagonist. Hatred and decay are juxtaposed with beautiful passages describing the cathartic and spiritual quality of nature. Nature is cruel and indifferent and dominates mankind but also possesses an everlasting power to awe and cleanse.
Simmering at the core of this novel is the idea of a malleable line between good and evil. The renowned psychologist at Stanford, Phillip Zimbardo, once said that the “line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” The section of the story about a young Michael Fischer in particular deals with a born desire to be good—to care for and protect his sister and Remus—while also wrestling with his desires for vengeance and justice in this unjust world.
Ultimately, Beasts of the Earth is a tragedy in the realist tradition doubling as a powerful ode to dreaming, beauty and human goodness.
Beasts of the Earth is one of our Fall/Winter Reads for 2022-2023. See the full list here.