"The Lord’s Acre: A Novel"
by David Armand, Texas Review Press, 256 pages
David Armand’s fourth novel, "The Lord’s Acre," opens with a crime in progress.
The young narrator, Eli Woodbine, has broken into an abandoned grocery store in search of food, money and just something to do to quell his boredom and desperation. He is alone, in the dark and among the dusty shelves of the store just before this quickly paced scene ends and he is caught. Then the novel flashes back to Eli’s childhood and his experience growing up in rural Louisiana.
It is here that the reader learns of the events that started this story into motion: Eli entering a “Just Say No” comic strip contest against his anti-government, anti-school, off-the-grid parents’ wishes, and then, much to his and his parents’ surprise, winning the contest. This sets in place a series of events that spiral downward until Eli and his family find themselves without anywhere to live and with no one to help them.
Enter Father, the charismatic church leader who runs the Light of His Way Baptist Church in Angie, a man who can heal people with the touch of his hand, who seems sometimes to be able to control the weather and who also has a strange hold over his congregants.
In sermons reminiscent of Willie Stark’s mellifluous speeches in Robert Penn Warren’s "All the King’s Men," Father tells his flock of his past life, his questionable childhood and his own strange view of Christianity, drawing them ever closer into his fold.
For readers interested in the historical and tragic events such as those that occurred at Jonestown, Guyana, and in Waco, Texas, the descriptions in this novel will provide a more humane perspective of the people who sometimes find themselves allured by this sort of lifestyle — something more multidimensional than simply saying they’re brainwashed or gullible or weak-minded.
All of Armand’s characters are sympathetic, even Father, who takes a special interest in young Eli and teaches him about everyday life in ways the boy’s addled parents never could.
However, after the responsibilities and pressures of leading a church simply become too much, Father disappears one day, ultimately causing Eli’s parents to lose their faith as well as any sense of hope they may have gleaned from their recent experiences.
And it is here, finally, that the story picks back up where it began — with Eli getting arrested for breaking into that old grocery store. His life seems lost, without meaning, but it is at this moment (and the surprising twist of events that follow) that a true sense of hope and renewal is restored, which ultimately makes "The Lord’s Acre" an incredibly powerful novel and probably even an essential one.
Dixon Hearne, who lives in Sterlington, is the author of five short story collections, a novella, several essays and a poetry book. dixonhearne.com.