Ernest Hemingway once said that all of American literature comes from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After reading David Joy’s first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, that notion doesn’t seem too far from the truth. This coming of age story, set in the impoverished mountain communities of Western North Carolina, has all of the dark violence of Huck as well as Huck’s vernacular voice, sense of fatality, and hints of heart-felt innocence.
David Joy accepts but then bats away such comparisons.
“Twain,” Joy says, “is significant to every writer coming out of the South.” But Joy is more likely to invoke the memories of his friends growing up and dying on the streets of Charlotte or to point to the tragic visions of Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell. “I kept reading the opening chapter of Tomato Red over and over because I wanted to know how Woodrell did it,” says Joy. “I was fascinated by the propulsion of Woodrell’s scenes and writing. When I was writing Where All Light Tends to Go, the hope was to create that type of pacing.”
Joy’s novel opens with the novel’s protagonist, Jacob McNeely, a high school dropout, watching his ex-girlfriend, Maggie, leave the local high school’s graduation ceremony. The action of the novel is compressed into a mere three weeks, and the events are as heated and sticky as a mountain summer’s dog days. McNeely feels the weight of his drug-dealing family as a burden that pins him to a life of crime: “I’d thought my life was chosen,” McNeely narrates. In a community of poverty, where, without a job, people must struggle to escape their circumstances, McNeely’s own impoverished options mirror the bleakness of the world he feels he’s inherited. The twins of family and fate play significant roles in the novel, obliterating McNeely’s ability to see a gleam of a future.
Glimmers do work their way into McNeely’s life. His romance with Maggie is reignited. His strung-out mother is hospitalized, just long enough to stabilize. In a powerful scene, McNeely finds her in a pensive moment, riveted by a painting (a kind of Thomas Cole for the roadside flea market set) whose symbolism radiates through to the novel’s conclusion. As Joy explains, “She has some sort of medicated lucidity about her”—enough to suggest she yearns to “make better choices and be what she always should have been” to Jacob. But the door closes on this possibility, narrowing McNeely’s options.
Those options include big bets on a gal and a gun—the gun, ironically, of the law. Or the final ending for us all, the hint of the title. McNeely flirts with a death wish throughout the novel. “Jacob doesn’t have many choices,” Joy says. “Without choices, death is a viable option.” Joy bases this philosophy on experience; he mentions several friends who have committed suicide. “The hardest thing for me to write was hope,” Joy explains. “When I look into the world and see people I know, they don’t have hope. Death’s the out.”
But Joy can turn bleakness into a song. Music is a constant in the novel, and Joy claims that Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” was part of the genesis of capturing McNeely’s voice. “That song,” Joy says, “is this novel.” There are lyrical moments—a hospital scene, the scene between McNeely and his mother after her release from the psych ward of the hospital—threaded through to illuminate the gloom, even if the overall effect is no more than a firefly’s in the entirety of a meadow. And the ending is nothing but a dream of lyricism, a coming together of key images and symbols, where the “grit” of the protagonist manifests itself in an act of bravery. With McNeely’s world having fallen to pieces, his hope shifts to Maggie.
Notwithstanding the violence and the hopelessness of the events, Joy grins and says, “It’s the feel good book of the year!” The story may not leave the reader with a radiant glow of good cheer, but the writing and pacing of Joy’s novel will compel every reader toward that point where all light tends to go.
J. W. Bonner teaches in the Humanities Department at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.