Regional lit based in North Carolina typically relies on a few standard elements to achieve that perfect blend of romanticism and realism. It usually starts with some craggy characters, grows with some choice bits of folksy wisdom conveyed in the appropriate dialect, with a blend of steamy summer evenings and dewy country mornings, a dose of hard living and a generally gentle affection in all that glues these elements together. The result is usually a tale with a bit of a golden glow, the book equivalent of a James Taylor ballad.
The debut novel of Western Carolina University graduate David Joy, “Where All Light Tends to Go,” seems as if it seeks to achieve this marriage of realism and romanticism. The book jacket even casts a mountain shack and an old pickup in that proverbial golden glow.
Inside the book, there’s only darkness, with a gloomy Townes Van Zandt soundtrack. Our narrator, Jacob McNeely, is a high school dropout in rural Cashiers, N.C., and the son of a big-time drug dealer. His days are wretched: He carries out his hard-nosed father’s bidding as an “employee” of the drug trade: changing oil at the garage that serves as a front for the business, chasing down suspicious characters and trying (not too successfully) to dodge the law. His only escape is drink and drugs.
The only beacon comes in the form of Maggie, Jacob’s ex-girlfriend and childhood best friend. She’s described repeatedly as beautiful and smart – a “good girl” who’s destined for a better life. Maggie represents everything Jacob can’t have and feels he doesn’t deserve – hope, beauty, goodness and honest success. “God doesn’t answer McNeely prayers,” he opines as he hides from the police in an abandoned trailer while on one of his many grim missions.
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Maggie re-enters Jacob’s life following her high school graduation, courting her own troubles and serving as only intermittent respite and stark contrast to everything he faces day to day, from the bleak (his mother’s hopeless addiction) to the bloody (the murders he is enlisted to help cover up). Even when he’s with Maggie, however, his gloom persists as he considers the deep divide between his world and hers.
Jacob is unable to acknowledge that there’s any practical way to start over until Maggie shares her own struggles. Amid the violence and profanity embellishing the story emerges the seed of a plan, naive and romantic, that the two will run away and start a new life in Wilmington, far from the mountains and the curse of being a McNeely.
Jacob pins all his hopes on this plot as his world crumbles around him, with more blood, more bodies and betrayal even beyond anything the skeptical protagonist could have predicted. (Has it been mentioned that this book is dark?)
If, as a reader, you’re looking for relief from depravity or any measure of redemption, you won’t find it in “Where All Light Tends to Go.” Joy’s joyless portrait of poverty and crime in Appalachia is merciless, and while he has a gift for scene-setting and vivid minor characters (the seedy family attorney is one amusing example), the dialogue is often mired in exposition that might be better conveyed in a more nuanced way (or omitted altogether – after a fashion, the momentum of the story is diluted by a profusion of rustic metaphors).
Raw and uncompromising, “Where All Light Tends to Go” is the perfect bedtime read for the devotee of a more macabre brand of Southern lit. It swallows whole any glimmer of hope for a better day.
Michelle Moriarity Witt, a former copy editor for The News & Observer, is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.
Where All Light Tends to Go
Penguin Group, 272 pages