Discover more from P.O.V.
Reflecting on David Joy
A look back at the author's first four novels
I discovered David Joy's novels quite by accident in 2017 when I came across his Digging in the Trash essay published in the Bitter Southerner. Joy's novels are intensely well written, a mix of hard boiled noir with a touch of the macabre. With four books under his belt, and the much anticipated Those We Thought We Knew set for August, now seems a good time to reflect on this author's mid-career position.
Jackson County is my home and that gives me a sense of connection to Joy's work. I’ve spent the best of my days in this beautiful place. This gives me an understanding of the places Joy describes and the people he uses to create his characters. I've bumped in to David a couple of times in public and you can tell at once he possesses a wisdom and sincerity I find reflected in his writing. I have some criticisms of his work, as any intellectual pursuit demands, but am incredibly proud of what he's accomplished and in awe of his productivity. As I often say, there is not a wasted word to be found in his work.
Joy came on the scene with Where All Light Tends to Go, now a film available on Amazon Prime with Billy Bob Thornton and Robin Wright, and set himself apart with a coming of age tale that's one part Breaking Bad and two parts southern gothic. Flannery O'Connor is often mentioned by those discussing Joy's work, and I can see that. He was mentored by Ron Rash at Western Carolina University. David mentions William Gay in several interviews. In three novels since, Joy has matured as an author and expanded his toolkit. Poetic denouement or epilogues have become his signature, along with respected skills as a woodsman. Ron Rash-esque similes sprinkle Joy's work like light fog in the jack pines. Sometimes close to the edge but never over it. Often a reader's delight.
Joy spoke recently of the increasing role social criticism plays in his work. He’s not as overt as Sally Rooney in direct anti-capitalist dialogue. Joy does possess a razor-sharp ability to synthesize urgent socio-economic struggles in the region with genre-specific storytelling. He’s carving out a literary hollow, modernizing the Appalachian narrative.
The author selected Jackson County, North Carolina as his laboratory. His skills as a naturalist translate in to an urgent sense of place in his work. I can’t say how it is for folks not familiar with the area, but he’s quite good. His characters express unease with the changing world, with outside influences. They possess a sense that something special is already lost yet not quite fully eroded.
His first three novels centered on brutality but he’s subtly explored broader themes. Joy’s last two novels directly take on pressing social issues of addiction and working class decay before pointing a laser light right at the question of race and privilege.
Where All Light Tends to Go
A coming of age tale regarding Jacob McNeely, a high school dropout whose father is the regional meth king. Jacob loves a girl and when he sees another boy offer her meth at a party, one gets a sense of the violence the boy carries inside. The novel sets up as Jacob's naive effort to get money for the girl to go off to college. This puts him at odds with his deadly father, the local sheriff's department, and the loose ends of a caper gone wrong. This novel is straight forward. I read it quickly the first time, but didn't get past the first third on a second pass.
The novel showcases one of Joy's greatest strengths. He has an ability to draw you straight in to the main character and hook you on the spot. This will remain the case throughout his body of work. Often the character alone draws you across otherwise flat plots. His primary early weakness, in my view, was inconsistency with secondary characters. The brutal father here is vivid, but both the damsel in distress and often the mother, are hard to picture and fall dully across the page. This would be my main criticism across his second and third novels, though Joy began to show flashes in this regard in When These Mountains Burn.
The Weight of this World
Joy's second novel is by far my favorite. I read it more eagerly the second time around. The novel grips you with the day to day of Aiden and Thad, two childhood friends facing an uncertain maturity. The novel takes a quick, deadly turn early on and the story splits. Aiden tries to force a deal with some stolen dope and ends up face to face with death. Thad, a veteran of the post-9/11 wars, is lost back home and his story follows a revenge plot against a drug tweaker. Thad's mother is Aiden's lover and this story line has energy, but she is depthless and again not alive on the page.
The three paths these characters pursue swirl together. The writing here showed incredible maturity. The natural world he describes is as good as it gets. He is a master here. One of the friends dies and the other carries on. David wraps this novel neatly with an epilogue in which the surviving character gets the final revenge.
The Line That Held Us
David moved away from the drug crime scene in his third novel to introduce us to a grotesque anti-hero in Dwayne Brewer. The author’s interest as a naturalist and outdoorsman takes center stage here. Brewer is the last of an original Appalachian family, left with just his younger brother called "Sissy". Sissy is out scrounging for ginseng when hunter Darl Moody accidentally shoots him. Moody knows the Brewers are a violent lot. He realizes his doom when he finds out that was no hog he shot. Darl brings in Calvin to help dispose of the body.
At the time I found this novel flat and pedestrian. There's even a domestic scene highlighted by Calvin ordering a Dos Equis grande at Colima's restaurant in Sylva. I mean, that's local flavor, but it could be anywhere in the state. The writing is crisp and what I call readable: well-paced and vivid. Of course Dwayne finds out Darl killed his brother and Calvin helped him, so one of them will die and the other be faced with a hero's journey. He has to save a loved one Dwayne has kidnapped.
I was most disappointed here in the climax. It involved Dwayne and the hero basically pointing guns at each other in the woods with Dwayne crying "you killed my brother you son of a bitch" and the hero contending "don't do it Dwayne, think about the future, don't kill us". This went on for two or three pages.
The unique thing here for me is that we had just moved back to the county the month this book came out in 2018. We were hard pressed to find a rental house while we waited for ours to sell. We came across a nice cottage on a secluded road called Allens Branch. About half-way up this narrow, steep cove the landscape changed to something not far from a forgotten world. Abandoned and dilapidated trailers, old vehicles. Dirt yards and chained dogs. We didn't go up there.
So after Dwayne Brewer recovers his brother's body he takes him home and puts him in a root cellar, which becomes the Mordor of the novel. Luckily I was not drinking when I read the chapter opening "At the top of Allens Branch ..." I yelled for my wife. Later I realized Joy or his partner took the photos for the Bitter Southerner essay up Allens Branch and down Chipper Curve Road where an ancient trailer sits at the corner of Allen Street.
All that being said, David hit gold with the epilogue in this one. It is among his most beautiful writing. The surviving character takes flight, I got the impression Joy was channeling Eric Rudolph, and hides in the wilderness around Fontana Lake to live in seclusion. He spies on campers and boaters and maybe slips in and steals some food. Joy's talent for naturalist writing excels here.
When These Mountains Burn
If you were alive in this region in 2017 then you recall the drought and the dangerous wildfires. Joy used this backdrop for his fourth novel published during the global pandemic in 2020. He took giant steps as a literary realist here. The novel follows Denny Rattler and Raymond Mathis as they navigate the user-end of the drug crime scene.
Raymond is an old man and his son is an addict. Joy uses Raymond to express a generational sadness at the simultaneous loss of the region's past and future as addiction runs rampant. Rattler is a young buck with no future and little family. He's a petty thief and addict from Cherokee. Rattler allows Joy to examine how the gaming revenues have changed life for the Cherokee people. Mathis and Rattler will come together during the plot and get the drop on the dealer who is after them.
I had some problems with the execution here and the overall plot. The dual story line leaves little room for character depth. That works out in the end, where Joy again delivers a poetic epilogue as Raymond reflects on the quiet and still things being lost in an ever modernizing world.
A minor third storyline follows a DEA supervisor and agent trying to piece together a major case in the area. The punk dealer Mathis and Rattler are tied up with ends up in the middle. When Mathis decides to take the law into his own hands, his actions have major consequences for the fed’s case. The big reveal here is a dud, with a character who is mentioned twice being held up as the key player in a local corruption scheme.
Taken together, the lack of main character depth combined with the utter flatness of support characters made this book difficult to praise. A deus ex machina appears in the form of an alcoholic weapons expert who passes time at the VFW in Tuckasegee. The ease with which he and Mathis wreak explosive havoc over a community of meth heads is hard to buy.
Rattler is the real story and I could have used a lot more of his perspective as the story unfolded. Wrapping everything up into one neat venn diagram felt forced.
I reread the book again two months ago and enjoyed it. I paid more attention to Denny Rattler this time. Mathis is introduced first so I kept thinking he would be the main story on first reading. Rooting for Rattler was more of a reading pleasure the second time. I do hope his scooter got him to where he was going.