I made a wrong turn.
Right where Plott Valley Road splits off from Plott Creek Road, I miss the sign, throw my old Bonneville in reverse and back up, carefully, searching for some sort of landmark and keeping my eye out for the ditch. I see David Joy’s mailbox, but it’s one of those country sculptures—three or four big, dented boxes balanced around each other, and no way of knowing which house goes with what mailbox. That’s when I see David standing in his doorway, waving at me and laughing about my navigation skills.
“You got a lot of Plotts around here,” I say when I hit the back door.
“You ever heard of a Plott Hound?” he answers and without waiting continues: “They are this badass dog that was bred to chase bears and hogs. The family that used to live in that old house right down there came up with the breed.” He points off in the direction of my wrong turn. That’s the thing about David Joy. He seems to know things you don’t, and they are all more interesting than anything you do happen to know.
David doesn’t have a Plott Hound. His dog of choice is a friendly, scruffy terrier mix of some type, sporting a Springsteen-worthy under bite that gives him a perennial cheesy smile. Charlie the Terrier leads us into the house, a low-ceiling farmette set on ten acres of land on the backside of Plott Valley. This is where Joy currently basks in the success of his first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go. (Okay, actually, that’s a lie. I just imagine him basking. Heck, that’s what I would do. But Joy really isn’t the kind of guy to bask in anything for an extended period, except perhaps a monster carp he hauled in on a fly rod or the fresh venison he just stocked his freezer with. It only takes a couple of minutes around Joy to figure out he’s not the kind of guy to get stuck on anything for long, especially himself and his success.)
Cover to Cover: Dubbed a country-noir for its dark rural themes, Joy’s premier novel Where All Light Tends to Go was shortlisted for a 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
And following the publication of Where All Light Tends to Go, the success has been swift and consistently glowing for the 33-year-old’s debut novel. The New York Times Book Review called it a “remarkable novel . . . With his bone-cutting insights into these men and the region that bred them, Joy makes it an extraordinarily intimate experience.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Joy’s “moments of poetic cognizance are the stuff of fine fiction, lyrical sweets that will keep readers turning pages.”
Even more glowing were the reviews from Joy’s fellow writers. Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version, called the book “lyrical, propulsive, dark and compelling . . . Joy makes it clear that he knows well the grit and gravel of his world, the soul and blemishes of the place.” And Silas House, who wrote Clay’s Quilt and Eli the Good said, “You won’t be able to put down this profoundly moving and illuminating look into a mysterious and intricate world where the smell of the Southern pines mingles with the scent of cooking meth.”
Where All Light Tends to Go cut an immediate and impressive swath through the literary territory, not only in the South, but across the country, as well. (Joy’s initial book tour began not in the South, but in the Southwest.) It was a novel discussed primarily for the manner in which Joy folded flowing, lyrical language inside what has been dubbed a “country-noir,” a fast-paced plot that traces the violent and cruel coming-of-age of young Jacob McNeely. Such an auspicious debut brings about a number of things: a slot on the short list for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, foreign translations, a long-list nomination for the International Dublin Literary Award. It also brings expectations for book-number-two.
Neck of the Woods // When David Joy isn’t cranking out best-selling novels, he enjoys his 10-acre plot in the Waynesville, NC, hills with his terrier-mix, Charlie.
Not to worry. Joy has upped the ante with The Weight of This World, set for publication on March 7 of this year. Joy says his second novel was being written before his debut hit the streets, so “I didn’t know how the first book was gonna be taken.” That gave him a bit of an authorial free hand. So what he did was ramp up the violence in the second book, in an attempt to “go into the darkest places and find the humanity there.” (And, trust me, if the violence in the new novel is an escalation from what happens in Where All Light Tends to Go, Joy’s sophomore effort promises to be an intense ride.)
Joy’s interest in the darker crevices of human nature is quickly becoming the thematic engine in his fiction. “I’m interested in the nature of violence,” he says. “I want to know where the line is, what is the moment when people turn away.” When Joy talks about his work, something interesting happens. The eyes narrow. The arms begin to conduct the words. The palpable passion for creating characters and their environments fills the small room.
“Look,” he says, gesturing to television mounted on the wall in the corner, “I only get one channel up here, ABC, and I’ll bet you if I turned on ABC News right now, we’d see an act of violence in the first five minutes. We constantly watch the darkest parts of humanity on TV, and it’s dismissed by people because it’s easy to dismiss. If we don’t look for some humanity in those dark places, well, I think we’re in a hopeless world.”
Joy takes a breath, gearing up. “And I don’t believe it’s hopeless. I want to find that humanity. Most violent people aren’t inhuman. There are very few pure monsters in this world. I want to explore how that works. I want to start a conversation about violence. I want to ask important questions about it.”
According to Joy, his second novel does just that—examine the nature of violence among three characters, characters for which trauma is a deciding factor for every decision they make. “Art has two roles, I think,” Joy says. “First, a work of art should elicit an emotional response, no matter what it is. Second, art should illuminate the human condition. That’s what I’m trying to do here—show us something about ourselves.”
In this attempt to create his art on the page, Joy has been grinding away at a feverish pace, much to the delight of his publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. “When I signed for the first book, I promised Putnam’s a book a year. I’ve been trying to do that, but it’s been difficult. I want to get to a place where I’m not pushing myself as hard as I am now.” Joy’s easy grin spreads over his bearded face, making me wonder if he even thinks that’s a possibility, if he actually realizes he only has one speed and that speed is flat-out.
“I mean, the thing is, I’m looking forward to the books I write when I’m fifty, when things have slowed down some. I want to write something you can’t forget, you know what I mean? I want to write a book that you hang around your neck for the rest of your life,” he says, giving Charlie a scratch behind both ears.
The mistake some readers might make is to assume that in order for Joy to explore the darker niches of his Appalachian characters’ psyches, he must have visited there himself on occasion. But an afternoon around the fireplace in his den quickly clears up that misconception. Joy is quick to laugh, would probably rather talk about fishing than publishing, and spends his late afternoons rambling around his kitchen. (“Stay for dinner. I’ve got deer cube steak and gravy and some damn good mashed potatoes.”) And he gets as excited about the books he’s reading as he does about the ones he’s writing. (“Man, I’ve only read two books this year that blew my mind. Life’s too short to read shitty books.”)
In other words, Joy is living a writer’s life back in Plott Valley, but his life isn’t his writing. He’s one of those novelists who saves his forays into the bleaker recesses of humanity for those solitary hours when it’s just him and a blank page and the mountains he knows so well. And when he returns from those expeditions, he gives us something valuable and lasting—a book that will “hang around our necks for years to come.”
Joy’s second novel The Weight of This World (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) is available for pre-order from Putnam Books at www.penguinrandomhouse.com. The novel is scheduled for publication on March 7.
“Art should illuminate the human condition. That’s what I’m trying to do here—show us something about ourselves.”
Excerpt from Where All Light Tends to Go
by David Joy
I remember the first time I knew I was capable of killing, and I mean really killing, not just rabbits and chickens and such, was when Daddy took me way back in Whiteside Cove after hogs. I’d never gone with him before, and until then all of my hunting had been distant, nothing hands-on, just .22 rimfire, gray squirrels and cottontails.
The Walkers had a hog bayed in a dried creek bed where smoothed river rocks lay like dusty cobble.
“Stick him up under his arm, Jacob,” Daddy yelled over squeals and snarls.
I’d never heard anything like that sound, but when Daddy unsheathed the knife and the cutting edge he’d sharpened that morning on whetstone caught sunlight, I knew what I had to do. He handed me the knife, and I clenched the leather-wound handle as tight as I could, my fist squeezed into a knot, and fought my way through the hounds till I could see the blacks of the pig’s eyes.
Eyes wide, chomping cutters, and screaming, the pig seemed fueled by some blend of fear and rage, and I felt tears dam up in my eyes as I pulled the butt end of the knife into my stomach and thrust hard until the steel bolster rested flush against coarse hair and tight skin. All seven inches of blade was in him now and the squealing grew louder, and I pulled out and stuck him again and again until the sound was wet, fell silent, and blood pooled onto dried oak leaves. I wiped the tears across my face with my shirtsleeve as if I was swiping snot from my nose so as Daddy wouldn’t see, and the hounds were still clenching firm to the hog when I watched the last bit of light go out of his eyes. The muscles tightened up one last time then fell lifeless and limp.
“You done good,” Daddy said as he squeezed my shoulder. That was one of those few times he’d been proud, but I could hardly hear him or feel his touch. My ears rang. My body numbed.
The high-pitched drone that wailed in my ears went away by nightfall, but it was that numbness that stayed with me. It was the fact that the tingling never left that let me know from then on that, when the time came, I could do it again.
For some reason, that was the memory that played out in my mind over and over as I stared at the back of my father’s head in the sanctuary of Hamburg Baptist on the day of Mama’s funeral. Daddy sat on the opposite side of the church and about five pews ahead of me. Mr. Queen sat beside him, having brought the ashes and urn up the mountain from Sylva. Queen, his bald head gleaming with candlelight, never turned around to look at me, but Daddy did. Daddy fixed his eyes on me and stared for a long time, a solemn look about his face. I tried to hold his eyes, outlast his stare, but like always he wouldn’t be proven weak.
“I’d seen that light in every living thing from squirrels to elders, and I’d seen that light burn out when it ended.”
A handful of the regular congregation had stayed behind that Sunday to offer support. I imagined the reverend had asked them to stay, and it meant something that he didn’t want the place empty. When I was a kid, Papaw brought me here to this pew every Sunday. Just down the hall was where I’d had to memorize all of those verses. A mean old woman named Mrs. Jones beat those verses into our heads and tanned our hides when we didn’t remember. She’d managed to hammer those verses so far down into me that even now, after all these years, I remembered. I’d never believed in any of it, though, even as a child. The only reason I’d gone was because it made Papaw happy, and I liked spending time with him, so I never put up a fuss. I guess it was once the cancer ate him up that I quit going. Never was much use for God after that.
I stared at the back of Daddy’s head, greasy hair slicked and combed, while the five-member congregation stood and sang the opening hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” I knew those words well, but for some reason, they failed me that afternoon.
Sharp angles of colored light shone through stained glass and glowed where the light touched pews. A dark brass urn holding the ashes of my mother stood atop a tall pedestal at the front of the church with summer wildflowers spread in a vase behind it. The pedestal was nearly the same height as the podium where the reverend stood. He was the reverend that had been there when I was young, though time had started to wash away the picture I held of him. The reverend was old now, his belly fattened, but all that seemed to disappear behind a curtain of fist-pounding, sweat-dripping hallelujahs. Though his God-given name was Hiram Bumgarner, I’d only ever known him as Reverend, and he spoke with fire, a locust kind of heat kindling on every word. He wore no robes, stoles, or clericals. Never had. He always stood in front of his congregation in nothing more than a white collared button-down and slacks.
Baptist funerals were revivals. There wasn’t time for looking back on lives lost when there were souls that still needed saving. Ten minutes into the sermon, spit flew from the reverend’s lips. Sweat beaded on his forehead and bled over him. The summer heat was inescapable in that tiny sanctuary, everyone breathed heavy, and the reverend unbuttoned his top two buttons, his yellow-tinged undershirt visibly wet. The five-member congregation, who had already sat through one sermon that morning, fanned themselves with folded bulletins, sweat gathering on them as well, and they glared on at him, never seeing the man, only hearing the words.
I found myself gazing up at the giant cross above the altar in the same way I’d done every Sunday as a child, and waiting for some sign, some light, to shine down and show me God was real. I’d been waiting around all of my life for that light, but so far nothing had ever come. When I was a kid, I expected it would appear like magic, but even then the idea seemed silly. I did wonder what happened when we died, though, and I’d wondered about it for most of my life. Thinking that nothing happened, that there was absolutely nothing following all of this pain, seemed just as silly as magic. No, there had to be something. And if there had to be something, then there had to be God, so in some way or another I was a believer.
The preaching was just a murmur in the room now, white noise that played in the background while my thoughts spoke and held me in a trance. I reckon the closest I’d ever come to understanding an idea as big as God was the light that flickered in the eyes of the living, the light that Daddy never had. I’d seen that light in every living thing from squirrels to elders, and I’d seen that light burn out when it ended. I thought about that hog in Whiteside Cove, and I could see that hog’s eyes clear as day, the way those lights had cut out like a switch had been turned when that pig huffed one last bloody breath. Then I thought of Mama, the way her eyes had glimmered that afternoon we spent talking, and the way those lights were long since gone when I found her there, eyes open, mouth gaping, brains blown sideways. There was a place where all light tends to go, and I reckon that was heaven. That lighted place was what that Indian had his eyes fixed on in the picture Mama fancied, and I guess that’s why she’d wanted to get there so badly. The place where all that light gathered back and shined was about as close to God as I could imagine.
On the pew where I sat, though, there wasn’t a damn bit of light to be had. Light never shined on a man like me and that was certain. In a lot of ways, that made men like Daddy the lucky ones to have only ever known the darkness. Knowing only darkness, a man doesn’t have to get his heart broken in search of the light. I envied him for that.
Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by David Joy.