Saturday, March 28, 2015

David Joy explores savagery and redemption in his gritty debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go

David Joy’s gritty debut novel, WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO, achieves something I never thought I’d see: his characters make those in DELIVERANCE look almost like refined, cultivated human beings.

Joy, who was born in Charlotte, has lived in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains since he was a teenager. A graduate of Western Carolina University, he was mentored by the great Ron Rash who he credits with being an important literary influence.

WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO is set in Cashiers, North Carolina, and the surrounding area. Jacob McNeely is the 18 year old son of a savage, murderous father who controls a very large meth business
fronted by an automotive repair shop through which he launders his illegal profits. He has cops on his payroll, a full-time sleazy lawyer and enforcers he sends to torture and kill anyone who steps out of line.

Jacob’s mother is an addict who is out of her head for most of the novel: “Mama snorted crystal, Daddy sold it to her.”

Jacob has been working for his father since he was very young and has known two things always: first, he is a disappointment to Daddy, who thinks he is weak and soft, “a pussy”; and second, that he has no choice but to do what his father demands. There is no escape. As he says over and over, he is a McNeely and “God doesn’t answer McNeely prayers.” He appears to believe that destiny is sealed at birth: “Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height.”

His characters make those in Deliverance look almost like refined, cultivated human beings

Jacob loves his best childhood friend, Maggie, who he has always believed has the smarts and ambition to get out of the mountains and achieve something in life. She plans to go to college in Wilmington (farther than Jacob has ever been from home and near an ocean he has never seen) and she wants him to go with her.

There is one murder after another as the plot marches to its inevitable conclusion. Jacob has always been afraid to trust anyone. As it turns out, that was a justifiable fear.

The imagery of “light” and “dark” is used throughout the book, for the most part very successfully. If there are weaknesses, they are these: the first half is sometimes overloaded with metaphors. It is almost a literary tic. There is also a fair amount of repetition. We do not need to be told over and over that Jacob believes he is destined to never escape the life he leads; that he believes he is not capable of making anything of himself; that he thinks there are no choices open to him; or that he cannot believe that Maggie could possibly love him.

To my ear, the writing in the second half of the novel is stronger and the pacing more assured – it is as if Joy really hits his stride at midpoint and the book takes off.

Photo by Andrew Rhew
It is always a cause for celebration when a debut novel is well-received.  The New York Times called WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO a “remarkable first novel.” The Huffington Post said it was a “savagely moving novel that will likely become an important addition to the great body of Southern Literature,” and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune called it a “beautiful, brutal book.”

David Joy’s next novel, WAITING ON THE END OF THE WORLD, will be released in 2016. He is also the author of a memoir, GROWING GILLS: A FLY FISHERMAN’S JOURNEY (2011) which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award for Creative Nonfiction.

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