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In the first episode of Netflix’s reboot of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Tan France remarks that the original Fab Five were fighting for tolerance and they are fighting for acceptance. They set out across red state Georgia to make over men --- one of whom has one of those infamous red hats and a “Trump/Pence 2016” sign to match --- and demonstrate that being a homosexual isn’t the end-all-be-all it’s still so often portrayed to be in parts of America. I bring this up because it was at the forefront of my mind as I read SOUTHERNMOST, the new novel from Silas House, which focuses on an evangelical preacher caught in the divide between his faith and the way it views and treats homosexuals.

The preacher in question is Asher Sharp, a husband and father who lives in Cumberland Valley, Tennessee, with his wife, Lydia, and young son Justin. The novel opens with the flooding of the Cumberland River and Asher doing what he can to help his neighbors and congregants as the unstoppable river washes away homes and lives. When Justin runs out of the Sharps’ house, safely located on a high ridge away from the floodwaters, to try and find his dog, he is returned by two men new to the valley who happen to be a gay couple. The men also save the lives of one of the church’s board members and his daughter before Lydia refuses to give them shelter for the night on account of their sexuality.

"SOUTHERNMOST is a many-layered book. It examines family from different angles and the varied relationships in Asher’s life."

That night and Lydia’s decision are the feather that collapses in the roof of Asher’s life. He no longer loves Lydia; her religious beliefs are bordering on zealous, and he takes issue with some of the ways she treats Justin. When the gay couple shows up to church and are treated abhorrently by his congregation, Asher delivers an emotional sermon about acceptance, which goes viral and ultimately gets him voted out of the church. He and Lydia separate, and after a messy custody battle and lies of omission on Lydia’s part, he loses the option to see Justin. All this atop his crippling guilt at turning away his gay older brother, Luke, a decade before pushes Asher to the edge.

One night when Lydia is away, Asher takes Justin from Justin’s grandmother’s house and heads south to Key West, Florida, looking for Luke, forgiveness and a place where he can live with his beloved son in peace. But peace is elusive when on the run and when a mind is embattled with itself over faith, morality, family and what is considered “right.”

SOUTHERNMOST is a many-layered book. It examines family from different angles and the varied relationships in Asher’s life. Faith and homosexuality, how one is viewed by the other and vice versa, is especially prominent as it is the catalyst for everything that happens after the first 30 pages or so. Add to those the intricacies of custody disputes, kidnapping by a parent, children with anxiety disorders, and death, and it equals one complex story.

For all the complexity contained within, SOUTHERNMOST has spans of incredible sluggishness, points at which it seems the narration is moving backwards rather than progressing with the turn of each page. Part of this is the plot itself --- perhaps an introspective father-cum-kidnapper full of guilt and a chip on his shoulder is not going to make for the most exciting narration. But House is an old pro, and his oddly spare but expressive prose does hasten the crawl at times. Justin is the real hero of the story, though, and the chapters from his point of view, titled “The Everything,” is where the book truly shines.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on June 15, 2018

by Silas House

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616209364
  • ISBN-13: 9781616209360