Early on in Peter M. Wheelwright’s debut novel As It Is On Earth, the narrator Taylor Thatcher’s father dies. With nods to Kierkegaard and William James, Taylor reflects on his father’s last days, saying that it had been a “Sickness unto Death in a cold hell . . . inside, he’d been disappearing for a while . . . with all his soul-sickness, he’d been like a cancer victim in a long lingering decline.” The statement, a “long lingering decline,” could as easily apply to Taylor’s family—both past and present. A twelfth-generation descendant of Mayflower Pilgrims, Taylor Thatcher is forced to deal with what he calls the “family thing” after receiving a phone call alerting him that his sensitive and eccentric brother, Bingham, is experiencing his own decline. Once the brilliant science student, his natural, intellectual gifts the envy of many, including Taylor himself, Bingham has, when the novel opens, taken to sleeping out on his apartment’s fire escape. His curious and troubling behavior not only launches the events of the book, but becomes one its central mysteries. Taylor’s effort to understand and help his brother will not only take him on a physical journey from the rocky coasts of Maine, through New England down to Mexico and back to Connecticut, inside the Mohegan Sun’s largest casino—but it will also take him on a spiritual journey of discovery and denial, secrets and lies, love, loss, reason and faith.
Taylor’s reference to what earlier in the novel he calls his family’s “unmentionable soul-sickness” is no toss-off comment; its significance resounds throughout this nearly apostate novel. In lectures 6 and 7 of A Variety of Religious Experiences, William James discusses a spiritual affliction that he terms “the sick soul”:
But there are (those) for whom evil is . . . a wrongness or vice in (their) essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy
James relates the experience of one sufferer reluctant to express the details of his affliction to his mother for fear that it might contaminate her own faith: “(Y)ou may well believe I was very careful not to disturb (her) by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.” This lends a subtle cleverness to Wheelwright’s choice of the word “unmentionable.” For the act of mentioning this soul-sickness, as it has charted a course through his family’s history, has become precisely Taylor’s charge . . . whether he likes it or not.
A professor at the University of Hartford, Thatcher holds dual degrees in the “Sociology of Engineering Science” and the “Science of Social Engineering,” which helps him to tell a story as much about the land as it is about its inhabitants, as much about the earth as it is about the world. His marriage to Nicole recently ended, Taylor meets a younger woman, Miryam, an Israeli photography student at his university. She will accompany him throughout parts of his journey, and, when Nicole reemerges in his life, make Taylor’s world even more complicated, as soon he may have to choose one over the other.
An architect by training, Wheelwright has designed his novel with an artful and elegant structure. Told in eight chapters—each representing one of the Seven Days of Creation (the eighth chapter, which is the first, is called “Before Days”)—the novel moves back and forth though different times in the Thatcher chronicle, uncovering a past that Taylor has, up to now, been trying to avoid.
As one might imagine, time is not only an organizing principle in this novel about family secrets and regional history; it is also one of its central themes. Explicit references to time abound: Last Days, End Times, Before Days, Dawn Time, Deep Time, even the choice of the novel’s time-period relates the eve of the new millennium. In language and narrative technique, time plays a role as well. The action of the novel takes place in present tense, which not only provides a sense of immediacy and urgency to Taylor’s story, it also gives the myriad flashbacks presented in past tense a paradoxical sense of aftermath. We watch Taylor go back and back further, and yet each layer feels like not only Taylor’s revelations, but ours, too. This is seductive storytelling.
Unlike Miryam, who, early in the novel, offers photographs of absent bridges, depicting only the supporting embankments that connect two sides of the earth, Wheelwright attempts to fill in those ghostly, empty polarities of space and time that span the deep chasm of family history. Like a narrative bridge-builder, Wheelwright connects past and present, choices and consequences, hope and despair, mystery and reality, all the while, like Miryam’s sturdy embankments, remaining anchored firmly into the land on both sides of the chasm of history. It’s a masterful balancing act—a stylish, graceful, and elegiac novel.