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David Joy examines Those We Thought We Knew
The author's fifth novel releases in August 2023
David Joy takes great strides as a literary realist with the forthcoming Those We Thought We Knew. His fifth novel, the story attacks the intersection of race and privilege in a small community in western North Carolina.
Joy made his mark with works of southern noir. Three of his first four novels spun tales of desperate folk at the edges of the drug trade. Known for violent stories and brutal characters, Joy's writing floats on descriptions of western North Carolina's natural resources. His last novel dealt with extremes at the user end of the opioid/meth disaster still running wild in Appalachia. He artfully dramatized the impact of illegal narcotics on generations young and old.
If you follow Joy online then you know he expresses a deep commitment to social and racial justice, a passion not yet thoroughly reflected in his published work. His success has not been without criticism, as most evidenced by readers saying he lacks robust secondary characters and often fails to bring life to female roles.
Joy tackles both head on in Those We Thought We Knew, which releases in August. The multi-layered story shines a laser light on issues of race and privilege via an imagined dramatization of events surrounding a popular confederate monument overlooking Sylva, N.C. The monument was the center of protests and a movement to have it removed in the late summer and fall of 2020.
Those We Thought We Knew tells us of Toya Gardner, an art graduate student from Atlanta with deep ancestral roots in the original African American community in Cullowhee, N.C. Her mother is an Atlanta attorney, but her grandmother is an Appalachian widow living on her homeplace. Toya is visiting for the summer, taking advantage of connections at the local university to work on her thesis project.
Joy excels at taking readers straight to the story and the opening here is no exception. Toya’s already rallied a team of activists to pull off a three-dimensional protest piece on campus. Law enforcement and the press push in and as the opening sequence winds down we find Toya walking off steam in downtown Sylva when she comes across the monument for the first time.
One envisions Bree Newsome tearing down the confederate flag in Columbia, S.C. in 2015. A roar of righteous indignation. A statement of purpose. Toya refuses to remain silent. In Joy's novel the real-life protest movement comes alive as a result of her actions. The back story meets the main story and as the two sides clash, a life is suddenly lost.
It would take spoilers to detail the plot further. The backstory involves a drifter rooted in the KKK who finds shelter under the guidance of a long-time community leader. A MacGuffin in the form of a black notebook with a list of names anchors the second story and provides a diversion for the main mystery. The two stories parallel each other until they meet in what seems like a final point. Joy has one more twist to the tale, however, which is more true to form of his previous novels.
A few things should be said about the fiction techniques Joy deploys. As a mystery, the plot clues are well paced and subtle.He casts several shiny objects for readers to bite, not knowing if it’s the hook or the bait. The way the author uses time is also of note. Instead of getting caught in a bear trap trying to dramatize every detail and story path, he uses off-scene action to move the story quickly, to open chapters following major events and tell you what happened in the aftermath before picking up dramatized scenes. This works well and allows the reader to move along the surface of the story and imagine the mentioned events. Otherwise this story could become unwieldy.
David Joy is not universally admired here in Jackson County. Many feel he is an appropriator, taking people’s true life stories and spinning them in sellable directions. Others see him as just another extractor come along to suck the life out of this unique place to give to others. While it is true that Joy takes the worst possible instances of people in this community and holds them up to the world (not much different than Deliverance or Easy Rider, for example), he also seems genuinely committed to his lifestyle and the southern Appalachian culture.
The question becomes does David Joy, while soaking up the stories of old mountain men with family lines going back 200 years in this rugged terrain, tell them to their face he thinks they are racist, KKK-sympathizers resting in the shade of white supremacy? That would be true commitment to his ideals. Rather than pretending to be a foul-mouthed outlaw on social media, does David Joy engage these men at the gun shop and the tackle store and out on turkey hunts in conversations like the ones dramatized in Those We Thought We Knew? That would be real.
Those questions aren’t really the point of the book. The book is about Toya and Vess and Danya and the love that sustains these vibrant women through life and death. The larger political questions are much like anything you would read in a social media flame war. Where David Joy succeeds in this book is making Toya and Vess alive on the page. This fact, combined with our nation’s unanswered questions of race, community and the future, make this book important.