Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
Putnam, March 2015
260 pages – Amazon
If Holden Caulfield ever needed a best friend that could (and probably would, if pressed) do his dirty work for him, the main character of David Joy’s debut novel Where All Light Tends to Go, Jacob McNeely, would be that friend.
Where All Light Tends to Go follows the teenaged McNeely as he struggles to understand the life that has been created for him in the mountains of North Carolina while simultaneously trying to grasp how to flee that life. Right from the outset, Jacob is aware of the dichotomy he has been living. “I was a McNeely and, in this part of Appalachia, that meant something. Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height.” The son of one of the most prominent meth dealers in the Western North Carolina mountains, Jacob is torn between what his blood says he is and what he sees in others, specifically his first love (and also, in every sense of the phrase, the girl next door), Maggie Jennings.
Having dropped out of school to follow in his father’s footsteps, Jacob exists as an Other to his former classmates, despite having grown up with many of them. “Now they recognized me for what I am, I guess,” Joy writes. “Trash, Trash that wouldn’t have known a fucking thing about them if it weren’t for Facebook.”
These words are very much the technologically-updated words of any number of voices that came before Joy such as Grit Lit/Rough South writers like Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, or Harry Crews. Joy shows the encapsulated essence of these writers this novel. He writes his characters tenderly, but still manages to show the sheer brutality and roughness that is growing up in the kind of situation Jacob McNeely navigates.
There’s a restlessness, too, that pervades the text, urging readers along. Just as Jacob is never quite settled in his skin, readers are not settled in the novel. Instead, they are rocketed along until the end, forced to come to terms with the events unfolding, it seems, at much the same speed as Jacob is himself.
As Jacob follows in his father’s footsteps, though, he realizes the path he’s taking is leading him further and further into darkness. Because of this, he sets his mind on doing anything he can to help Maggie get out. His life may not be salvageable, but Maggie’s life sure is. The violence and brutality exercised by his father escalates throughout, driving Jacob further and further towards the edge of everything he knows. When we finally get to the end, stumbling as if drunk on the tension that Joy has established over the first two hundred or so pages, there is nothing to feel but fatigue and heartbreak and that is primarily because the ending of Where all Light Tends to Go is damning. The final scene is as savage and heartbreaking as that of another recent novel, Mark Powell’s The Dark Corner. The ending is inevitable, but Joy does well to trail hope throughout the narrative until that last moment when Jacob finally understands his purpose.
Joy writes with a lyrical precision that rivals the forebears of the Southern/Appalachian/Grit Lit/Rough South work. The work is both brutal and beautiful in equal strokes and he does well to propel readers through a wide range of emotions seemingly with ease. One of the best elements is the sardonic humor of a teenager who knows his destiny already. In describing the dirt bag Maggie is involved with, Jacob says, “Avery Hooper was the type of guy that every time he looked at you, you just wanted to haul off and hit him in the fucking mouth.” There are a few moments—much like Caulfield’s incessant complaining in Catcher—that the prose gets to be a little too saccharine and homespun for its own good, such as after Jacob beats Avery up: “Seeing as they said Avery was in the hospital with a shattered orbital, likely to need some reconstructing, I must’ve been a pretty good batteryer.” Thankfully, these moments are few and far between and they do not do much to cheapen or take away from the strong prose. Since he was brought up in the same mountains that the novel takes place in, it is easy to see Joy’s command over the language and his understanding of what would work in the narrative format and what would come off as hokey and stereotypical.
Joy may quickly become one of the next faces of this sort of fiction, however you define it. Jacob is the distilled version of a Ree Dolly/Holden Caulfield blend and he’s been aged in the finest Crews barrels. The best thing to do with this novel is to pour two fingers of barrel-strength bourbon, sit back, and enjoy.