“The Weight of This World”
Author: David Joy
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
David Joy dreamed he would be able to make a living writing about fly fishing in the cold, clear waters of the Blue Ridge. It is his passion. In fact, he began his writing career with a memoir structured around fly fishing, “Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey” (2011).
This is as eloquent an explanation of this obsession one could ever read. Joy becomes an expert, then becomes so enamored of the process and the fish he stops eating them, moving exclusively to catch-and-release.
The trout are so beautiful, he says, “it’s like holding God your hands.” (I guess it would be wrong to go home, fillet the fish and eat it.)
David Joy’s first novel, “Where All Light Tend to Go” (2015), made a considerable stir. It is in the tradition of Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, the Cormac McCarthy who wrote of the Tennessee mountains, not Texas, and especially the man who became Joy’s mentor, the new Southern fictional super-star Ron Rash.
(In fact, Joy takes Ron Rash fly fishing in “Growing Gills” and Rash accidentally breaks one of Joy’s favorite rods. Fishermen will want to read this. )
In “Where All Light Tends to Go,” Joy explores the culture of Appalachia, the same culture examined so successfully by J. D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy.” This is a narrow, claustrophobic society, trapped by mountains and traditions, mainly bad. The protagonist Jacob McNeely has a father who’s a meth dealer, including selling to his hopelessly addicted ex-wife, Jacob’s mother. There is no bottom here.
Joy’s second novel, “The Weight of This World,” is set in the same place, Jackson County, North Carolina. This fast-paced novel again has huge energy, believable dialogue and is realistic to a fault.
This is Appalachia at its most raw, but a particular stretch of Appalachia. There are no coal mines, no ski slopes, no factories, not even closed, rusting factories. There are only rusting travel-trailers, single-wides and shacks–these characters cannot even afford a luxurious double-wide manufactured home.
There was never much to do here until the early twenty-first century when there was a boom in vacation homes. That boom collapsed around 2009, and early in the novel we see Aiden and Thad, two buddies, working all night stripping the copper wire from a half-built house which had been abandoned.
These two have been friends since childhood, both unemployed, both heavy drinkers and drug abusers, alike in many ways, but not all.
Thad enlisted and fought in Afghanistan and has now returned with a damaged back and PTSD. While on duty, he was forced to shoot a small girl carrying explosives and witnessed comrades blown to bits.
He’s angry, in pain, and not getting satisfaction from the VA.
Aiden, as a 12-year-old, watched his father kill his mother and then blow his own brains out.
Aiden’s lover is April, who, surprisingly enough, is Thad’s mother.
In what is at first startling to the reader, we learn that April does not, has never loved her son Thad, who was the product of a brutal rape by a church deacon. Maternal love is not exactly instinctive or universal. April was then abused by her husband for years until his unlamented heart attack.
In examining this desperate and failed culture, Joy is also exploring the wider meanings of PTSD. We understand the PTSD of combat, but we are slower to realize, he is saying, that in a violent culture many regular civilians are also coping with PTSD.
Thad and Aiden become almost inadvertently enmeshed in the methamphetamine trade which is pandemic in the Blue Ridge. They will be beaten and tortured themselves and beat and torture others in ways that cannot be described in a review. Joy knows some readers will get off the bus; exactly when is the question.
The denizens of Jackson County, both the local vicious hillbillies and some Mexican gang members, are scorpions in a bottle, perpetually enraged and stinging one another, and there seems to be no escape.
They are locked in place by powerful forces. Even one’s family name is destiny: “everybody knows how those McNeelys are!” But their inherited DNA is not counter-balanced by nurture, only reinforced; many are raised by cruel, neglectful, violent parents, and the local scene offers no hope. Why finish high school? There are no jobs anyway.
Nevertheless, in both David Joy novels, some characters, especially women, although sometimes just as damaged and depraved as the men, seem emotionally more resilient, less given to absolute despair. They dream of leaving, starting over, but NOT in far-away places with strange-sounding names. April wants to get to Wilmington to start a new life. Unlike almost all of the men, Aiden too, dreams of escape, to Asheville.
It is impossible not to hope wishes so humble will be granted.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”