“The Serpents of Blissfull,” by Bruce Pratt, Mountain State Press Inc., Charleston, W.Va., 311 pp, $16.
There was nothing hopeful in Isaac Butts’ decision to hitchhike home in a snowstorm to Blissfull, W.Va. Geographic cures from Bangor, Maine, to Holyoke, Mass., had eluded his efforts to get beyond the alcoholism that had been hammered into place by his father’s abuse and his mother’s abandonment.
Surely the van that stopped to pick him up on the southbound highway was just a ride, even if the driver was a reverend he had met before, and even though the man’s ministry included an anointing with motor oil as Isaac promised to give his life to God.
Wasn’t Blissfull just a name once Isaac had climbed the ridge back home to find older brother Riley gone to Detroit to visit their ailing mother? Before he can come to grips with that, he hears Riley’s ex-wife, Lillian, take the call letting her know that the mother who never sent for her boys has died.
“I wanted a drink, one I could already feel blistering my toes, a long, hard gulp of ’shine, but I knew I wouldn’t have one, at least not until Riley had come home,” thinks Isaac. “I kicked at small stones in the dooryard, stunned to think that I’d become an orphan and a Christian in an eye blink, and I figured that if Reverend Willis was to be believed that The Lord must have intended both to happen to me.”
Days later Isaac is distraught to learn that Riley had his mother’s ashes shipped home in a box that also contained drugs and a couple of guns. Quietly, he sneaks the ashes off to Theo Willis for a blessing, dumps what he thinks are his mother’s remains into the creek for transport to the ocean and returns the nearly empty container to the box.
Isaac moves into the old farm with his brother, ex-wife and their children; reunites with high school sweetheart Lorena Whipple and takes her faithfully each Sunday to Star of Morning Church, even though a Whipple sister had been married to Willis and died after being bit on a snake-hunting trip with him.
Though Isaac, Riley and Lorena have no use for snakes, the reverend next wangles Isaac and Riley, the brother who has the nerve to mistrust Willis, into helping him hunt snakes near the place where the boys’ late father had hidden moonshine. Then he hooks Isaac and Lorena into transporting snakes to Billy Parsons, a serpent buyer looking to supply his own new congregation in Maine.
The task goes well and Isaac pursues his new life, free from drink. Even Riley, who can’t seem to find the right side of the law, is building a new home for his family.
But there will be another snake bite, and more favors to do for the Reverend Willis, who thinks he can export his sins to Maine, and get Isaac to make his amends for him, to boot.
Author Bruce Pratt of Eddington grew up in Connecticut in the 1960s, and studied religion in college. At the front of “The Serpents of Blissfull” is a quote from Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe; in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The word “serpent” is found in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Ministers are named “Theo” and “Parsons.” The lead character is called Isaac, the name of the son Abraham was asked to sacrifice.
What’s the difference between a serpent and a snake? Who has the demons in this novel, and what are they?
Pratt has studied, practiced and taught writing for decades. He has composed, performed and recorded songs; penned short stories; and written for the annual Northern Writes Play Festival. May there be more novels, as well. Bruce Pratt can tell a story.