Cliff Cash likes to quip that he’s the funny brother, and his older brother, Wiley Cash, is the skinny, smart, successful one. Which is one way to look at it.
True, the better known is Wiley, a Gastonia native whose 2012 debut novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” became a best-seller and New York Times Notable Book.
But Cliff is also a storyteller. He’s a comedian who skewers a certain kind of Southerner – the redneck who believes President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and that Dale Earnhardt died because God needed a driver.
So you also could say these two brothers took different paths to their vocations – one straight and deliberate, the other meandering. And now, they’ve ended up in the same place.
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In January, Wiley, 36, was back in his hometown to launch his new novel. He and Cliff both live in Wilmington, but his latest book, “This Dark Road to Mercy,” is set in Gastonia, so he decided to start his book tour there. Cliff, 33, who’d just finished 10 stand-up shows in seven days, had joined him.
With some free hours until Wiley’s evening book event, they met me for lunch at Gastonia’s venerable Tony’s Ice Cream on Franklin Boulevard. Sitting in one of Tony’s bright red booths, we talked about their childhoods, their relationship and the route each took to become a storyteller.
Always, Wiley has been the responsible older brother. Put another way, Cliff has been the wild younger one. When they were little, growing up in Gastonia’s Forest Brook neighborhood, it was Wiley who intervened when Cliff was about to punch out a kid for some perceived injustice. When Wiley went to UNC Asheville, he’d invite Cliff for a visit, then spend the weekend making sure his brother didn’t get himself killed.
“I would have 911 dialed with my hand on the send button the whole weekend,” Wiley recalls.
Says Cliff: “I partied at college quite a bit when he went to college.”
Cliff’s antics have since calmed considerably, but the fraternal dynamics persist. Even lunch at Tony’s reveals their different personalities: Wiley gets a hotdog and hamburger. Cliff orders those sandwiches, plus fries and a strawberry milkshake. When an employee gives them free Tony’s Ice Cream ball caps, Wiley tucks the gift in his backpack. Cliff puts his on his head.
Wiley always knew what he wanted to do with his life. He’s been writing since elementary school, though early work is what you might call derivative. In sixth grade, for example, he wrote about a New York City kid who moves to a small Southern town, only to have terrorists commandeer his new school. This was soon after the 1988 release of “Die Hard,” the movie about a New York City cop trapped in a Los Angeles high-rise with terrorists.
Wiley had lifted most every scene, “but instead of Bruce Willis,” he says, “it was a 12-year-old street-smart fish out of water.”
“Just kicking ass,” Cliff says.
“Yeah,” Wiley says. “Blowing up terrorists.”
Plagiarism, sure, but it served its purpose. By writing movie-inspired stories, he learned how to construct scenes.
By 10th grade at Ashbrook High, Wiley had become a long-haired angsty teenager who sang lead for The Subterraneans, a garage grunge band he’d named for a Jack Kerouac novella. Despite a passion for literature, he says, he was such an unmotivated student his parents feared no college would take him. In desperation, they moved him to Gaston Day School.
The transfer did the trick. Wiley remains grateful to the late Cynthia Furr, a Gaston Day English teacher who took his writing seriously. “She just really held me accountable,” he says. “She just pushed and pushed.”
‘Too handsome to be a writer’
By the time Wiley got to UNC Asheville, his parents no longer had to worry. A literature major, he was elected student body president his senior year. One former professor told a reporter last year that he thought Wiley might go into politics, given that he was so well liked and “too handsome to be a writer.”
Instead, he went to graduate school, getting a master’s in English at UNC Greensboro and a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2008. That’s where he wrote “A Land More Kind Than Home.” Wiley set the book in North Carolina’s Madison County, a place whose strange remoteness had fascinated him when he lived in Asheville. The story centers on a tragedy – an autistic boy killed during a snake-handling ceremony at his church.
Selling the book took several years. Rejections were numerous. But when William Morrow finally published it in 2012, it was to literary acclaim. The New York Times pronounced it “mesmerizing.”
Cliff’s route to comedy was more circuitous. He also went to UNC Asheville, where he says he gained about 40 pounds freshman year after discovering dark beer. He dropped out sophomore year. “I partied too much,” he says. “I didn’t have what he had – something I loved to do.”
For several years, he foundered. Wiley stuck by him, even though, Cliff says, “there were times he didn’t like me much.” In 2010, when Wiley got married, Cliff, his best man, offered this toast: “You never let me down, not once in my whole life.”
For the past six years, Cliff has run his own recycling company in Wilmington. It wasn’t until 2011 that he stepped on a stage in Wilmington and did his first stand-up.
A natural comedian
This turn of events shocked no one who knew him. Cliff was always funny, the guy who regularly cracked up friends with his stories. He’d also studied stand-up comics. But it took years before he realized that maybe he could earn a living making people laugh.
On stage, Cliff often assumes the persona of a redneck guy from someplace like, maybe, Gastonia. “Talk about what you know,” he says.
But unlike many Southern comics, Cliff’s jokes carry a political edge. “I decided early on ... if I’m going to do it, I want to put out some kind of message, at least make fun of ignorance.”
In one bit, he pokes at conspiracy theorists, warning his audience that Obama is coming for all the guns in the world. “He’s taking paw-paw’s huntin’ rifle, he’s taking your dad’s .38 that he’s kept in the kitchen drawer since the ’70s. Then, he’s going to melt the guns down and use the metal to make rings for gay people to get married with.”
Wiley, of course, is one of his biggest fans. So is Brian Heffron, the Charlotte-based founder of the Comedy Zone franchise. Heffron, who sees a lot of comedians, likes Cliff’s take on Southern culture. “Cliff brings more intelligence to it,” he says. “I like somebody that pushes that line a little bit.”
Cliff now appears up and down the East Coast. In 2013, he won Port City’s Top Comic and made it to the final 30 comics in Comedy Central’s UpNext nationwide competition. He has recently begun doing about 30 minutes before the headline comic performs at clubs. His next goal is to headline.
“If there’s any moral to Wiley’s story, what I really took away,” he says, “is he found something he really loved and worked his butt off and didn’t give up.”
Wiley, for instance, began his new novel, “This Dark Road to Mercy,” years before he published his first one. It’s about a washed-up minor-league pitcher who kidnaps his two young daughters from their foster home. Oprah’s Book Club has named it a must-read for February.
Snowstorm on launch day
Wiley had planned the book’s January launch for Gastonia because the story is set there. His alma mater, Gaston Day School, was to host his book signing. At least a couple hundred people were expected.
But the day dawned with a snow forecast. When the school closed early, Wiley found himself with a new book and no place to launch.
Books-A-Million came to the rescue. After Wiley wrote a blog post about the cancellation, the bookstore chain’s CEO saw it and offered his Gastonia store. The event drew close to 30 people, a good crowd considering the weather.
The night was still young when Wiley and Cliff returned to their hotel room. They were bored, so they embarked on a favorite activity – making a video. Wiley explains how “what started as a horrible day really ended up being amazing.”
Then Cliff steps into view, beer in hand, Tony’s Ice Cream hat on head. He suggests that the customers at Books-a-Million were actually fans of his who heard his brother had written a book. He describes what he ate for lunch at Tony’s. He notes that he didn’t have to pay a dime for his new hat.
Cliff and Wiley have collaborated on a couple of these gonzo videos to publicize Wiley’s novel. Because it turns out that Wiley, the smart brother, is also pretty funny. And Cliff, the funny brother, is often smart. They’re both thinking men, as Cliff says in one video. They like to put words together. To tell stories. They’re more alike than they seem.