The Hard to Catch Mercy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, one of the finest and most successful regional presses in the country, THE HARD TO CATCH MERCY is, at best, a pastiche of Southern stereotype, stock characters, and hoary plot turns. Although it is being touted as parody, the book strains after humor and mystery and never is as captivating as it would like to think. Characters come and go with little development, and the narrator, Willie T. Allson, neither engages nor entertains as he recounts the events of two years in the life of the Allson family.

Willie T.’s adventures begin when the two family cows—Ruth and Naomi—run off onto a sea island which is then cut off by high tide. Willie T. and his cousin Uncle Jimmy are sent to employ the help of a notorious and frightening figure, a man known as The Hard to Catch Mercy since he is able to capture hard-to-catch animals. On the journey, the two boys meet Mercy’s sister Amy, who later moves to Cedar Point to work. When she unexpectedly dies, Mercy vows revenge on the Allsons, specifically Willie T. Through the advice of their black servant Anna, Willie T. comes to face his fears of this vicious and almost supernatural figure, and in a final, violent confrontation finds the courage to make a stand.

Highly episodic, the book seems truncated. Characters appear and disappear with little preparation, events lead nowhere, and the ending is abrupt and awkward. Although the novel has been highly praised and is, in fact, a Book of the Month Club selection, it represents what is most dispiriting about self-conscious Southern literature that relies on caricature and stereotype to carry the story.