Book Review - David Joy's big country noir debut
Where All Light Tends to Go' leaves a great first impression
The South isn't just a region or direction. She's an existence. Years of practice have fine-tuned her adversarial skills, generating one of the best damn antagonists literature has to offer. She's flawed but captivating. Has a backstory (Trail of Tears, Civil War, civil rights ... ). She's convincing. Her past is troubled (see backstory). And in David Joy's debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, the South's reputation for being a badass is backed by Jackson County's intensely complex characters.
No one knows the word struggle better than 18-year-old Jacob McNeely, who carries his birthright like a "loaded gun of hope and faith." With a junkie mama and a meth-dealing daddy, he's battling more demons than a tent of Pentecostals. But drugs aren't the only poison running through Jacob's veins. While the McNeely name may protect Jacob at times, it also prohibits him from being anyone but a McNeely. It imprisons him in an isolated Appalachian town where pistols, Bibles, and methamphetamines are law.
Waiting around to die is something Jacob has done for some time. "It wasn't the dying part that ate him. It was the waiting." Jacob's fatalistic approach isn't a ploy for sympathy. It's a by-product of resilience. This ability to bend and not break has kept him alive over the years. It's a Kevlar vest that shields his empathy and desire from the bullets of despair. This is what the writing world calls a damn fine character. Joy has many of them.
Jacob's multifaceted structure is the author's way of instilling in him a fighting chance against that tough beautiful bitch, the South. Jacob may or may not be able to defeat her, but at least he's been given the skills to confront her.
Charlie McNeely, Jacob's daddy, is a mean drug-running son-of-a-gun. He keeps the law in one pocket, his pistol and Bible in the other. "Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height," Jacob expresses. He desperately wants to escape both his lineage and the family business, but he's trapped in tradition.
The one light in Jacob's glazed-over eyes is Maggie Jennings, who has always been "something slippery he couldn't grasp." Maggie's been accepted to a college in another city but doesn't have the money to go. Though Jacob dropped out of high school, the two have remained friends, bonded by the viscous threads of an impoverished childhood. From a distance, Jacob watches over her, intent on making sure she escapes what he feels he cannot. "It had always been obvious Maggie was only passing through."
Some may feel that Joy's use of clichés in the novel is overkill, but writers who choose loyalty to their characters at the potential cost of readership are not only courageous but, in my opinion, admirable. Credibility often has a price.
If you're expecting a happily-ever-after ending, you won't find it in Joy's novel. It's not for the fainthearted or what Charlie McNeely refers to as "pussies." Southern Gothic is not a genre with a light at the end of the tunnel. Just ask Jacob: "That old adage rests entirely on the direction being traveled."
What you will find between the covers is a combustible concoction of well-crafted characters and a gripping plot. Joy's ability to cook up a story that is equal parts of both makes a compelling read. Of course, he can't take credit for the South. She's been antagonizing families for years (see As I Lay Dying's Bundrens). A gritty narrative propelled by poignant imagery and stunning prose, Joy's Where All Light Tends to Go is the South with a capital, albeit slightly crooked, S.
Where All Light Tends to Go
?by David Joy. Penguin.
?Books. $26.95. 272 pp.