The New Inheritors

Written by Kent Wascom
Review by Larry Zuckerman

Isaac Patterson, an orphan in the lawless wilds of 1890s rural Florida, barely escapes on his stepmother’s back from murderous roughnecks. Separated from her immediately, he spends a few years at an orphanage before a kindly coastal Mississippi couple adopts him and nurtures his obvious artistic talent. The idyll continues when he marries an heiress who adores him, but her family is riven by blood feuds, and then America enters the Great War in 1917.

Wascom writes stunning prose, especially of the seascape and shorebirds that Isaac loves to draw; the author portrays the New Orleans underworld and soldiers of fortune in equally vivid terms. Violence is a crucial element, and there’s plenty of it. Wascom apparently wishes to show how greed, lust for power, and jealousy cause bloodletting, and how new life blithely occupies the space once held by the dead.

But to make a fresh case for these well-worn themes, The New Inheritors would have had to make them particular to the characters and show that through their inner lives. Instead, I find these people difficult to engage with, for the storytelling feels distant and disconnected, as if the narrative occurs through a telescope. Much of it sounds preachy, with bald, earnest statements of politics or philosophy prefaced by phrases like we know (insert thesis here) or we remember. Also off-putting are phrases that “such-and-such would happen to so-and-so” later in life, a device that undercuts the dramatic tension.

With a brilliant exception of the scenes during the war years, The New Inheritors evokes no particular era and thus feels groundless as historical fiction. I’m not sure the marvelous prose rescues the book for lovers of the literary, either; I found it a struggle to finish.