Putnam, $26.95, 272 pages
When did book titles get so wordy?
From story collections (“I Want to Show You More” by Jamie Quatro, Miranda July’s “No One Belongs Here More Than You”), to novels (Bob Shacochis, “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,”) to poetry collections (Lisa Ampleman, “I’ve Been Collecting This to Tell You”), the trend for naming books seems to have found an appetite for mouthful monikers.
In the case of David Joy’s “Where All Light Tends to Go,” the verbose name and rustic jacket art bears more than a whiff of Wiley Cash — perhaps the poster child for gritty, country-noir thrillers with unwieldy names (“This Dark Road to Mercy,” “A Land More Kind Than Home”). This forceful debut novel set against the toxic backdrop of an Appalachian drug ring is also bound to draw comparisons to Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone,” though Ron Rash or Cormac McCarthy may also apply.
Our brooding hero, high-school dropout Jacob McNeely, is barely 18 and convinced that if blood really is thicker than water, he’s drowning in it. His dad manages a busy crystal meth operation in the “damp hollers” between Sylva and Cashiers, N.C. His mother is a hopeless addict.
Although Jacob has somehow “avoided the meanness” of his callous, tattoo-covered father (who he refers to as “Daddy”), there’s no escaping the family business. Daddy calls trafficking meth a sort of McNeely tradition not unlike the mountain moonshine trade of yesteryear. “I’d been around crank my whole life,” Jacob says, “so it had never been a drug, only money.”
Daddy, the brains of the business, steers clear of the product while managing henchmen and keeping “friends of the family” (cops and other officials) on the payroll. Jacob’s involvement in the multi-tiered organization escalates on the day he was supposed to graduate from high school. It’s no big surprise when an assignment to watch over the interrogation of a would-be snitch heads south. The real shocker is how far the stomach-churning torture scene goes once the sulfuric acid comes out.
Jacob confesses that he never much believed in the higher power feared by his Baptist grandparents, but the midpoint of the book finds him praying to God that he can skip town before a growing pile of bodies is discovered. This change of faith and new-found spark of self-determination is a welcome development for a protagonist who spends many chapters in Hamlet mode over familial violence, his ex-girlfriend or one revolting situation after another. Jacob passes days high on Xanax and marijuana and wallowing in a hazy Townes Van Zandt pity party, yet the character shows a remarkable depth of self-awareness that refuses to be sedated.
Joy, author of the award-winning memoir “Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey,” grew up in Charlotte and lives now in Webster, N.C. He writes about the region’s drug epidemic with lively exactitude, from the “one-percenters” transporting cargo across state lines in the crankcases of motorcycles to “shake-and-bake” labs stinking up derelict convenience stores. “Methamphetamine was a living, breathing body in Appalachia,” Jacob says. The novel demonstrates in no uncertain terms just how contaminated and ruthless that body tends to be.
As successful as the author is with the terminology, smells and textures of the territory, he sometimes struggles to find a balance between Southern colloquialisms and creative phrasing. The book’s peculiar similes range from amusing (concrete painted “gray like an old woman’s perm”) to mind-boggling: “Gerald yanked the tarp out of the truck bed like some drunken magician trying to pull a tablecloth from under a coffin.” Joy has a soft spot for overwritten flourishes, such as, “Sunlight and darkness became the only testament to time.”
Trendy or not, the elegance of the book’s title is revealed in a touching passage soon after Jacob’s turnaround. “There was never a moment in my life when I bought into the idea of light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “That old adage rests entirely on the direction being traveled. … (M)y entire life I’d been traveling in the opposite direction, and for those who move further into darkness the light becomes a thing onto which we can only look back.”
Such moments of poetic cognizance are the stuff of fine fiction, lyrical sweets that will keep readers turning pages even through scenes when the book sputters. At the same time, we’re left to wonder how a boy like Jacob came to develop such awareness. Joy treats Jacob’s meth-addicted mother with compassion, though the character serves as little more than an extra from a D.A.R.E. campaign. Daddy is even more enigmatic, with only momentary flashes of tenderness offsetting his junkyard-dog personality. Jacob’s sensitivity feels worlds away from either parent, making his reluctance to flee this backwoods “Breaking Bad” dynasty all the more confounding.
“Where All Light Tends to Go” is a book that discloses itself gradually, like a sunrise peeking over a distant mountain range. It takes several chapters to get a full glimpse of Jacob’s bleak predicament, which makes for both a powerful indictment of the setting and rich fodder for character growth. Early on, Joy indulges in plotting and dialogue that almost suggests a romance novel masquerading as country noir. The blood-soaked finale proves otherwise.
Joy’s next book isn’t due for a year or more, but he’s already announced the title, another mouthful: “Waiting on the End of the World.” If the novel is anything like his first, it’ll be worth the wait.