The hushed opening of David Joy’s new novel “The Line that Held Us” is quickly cracked when Darl Moody shoots a man by mistake while he’s looking to poach a deer out of season. The trophy buck he’s been hunting for years proves elusive yet again, but just before dark Darl sees what he thinks is a wild boar—he’s not quite sure while looking through the inexpensive scope on his rifle— but he pulls the trigger anyway.
It’s a thoughtless act, one in a series that sets up the riveting plot to Joy’s excellent third novel. Darl is elated as he rushes over to the kill, only to be snagged by some fishing wire, which he realizes guards a valuable ginseng patch on Coon Coward’s land in the Caney Fork community of Jackson County, North Carolina. The bottom falls out of Darl’s world when he sees the kill is no wild boar. He’s killed Carol Brewer. In this fictional world that’s no small thing since the Brewers are known as a vicious lot, especially Carol’s older brother Dwayne.
Dwyane is one town over at the time, at the Walmart in Franklin. He’s drinking beer from a 12-pack he’s opened while walking around the store. He sees some teens making fun of another boy that reminds Dwayne of himself—poor, alone and being sneered at by the well to do. Heat rises in his blood and as Dwayne continues to drink beer in the store he decides to take a stand. It’s a meaningful insight into Dwayne’s character, one Joy will ride to the story’s climax somewhere in the mountains above the small mountain town of Sylva.
This book is root cellar dark. There’s no way around it. But much like the glow from kerosene lamps lighting Dwayne’s vision as he contemplates what he’s loved and lost, there is a hope fighting to rise like jack pines in the Appalachian forest. Joy’s built a deserved reputation for crafting well-paced novels full of brutally real characters. He’s successfully travelled the path from coming of age tale, to multi-perspective crime thriller, to this third novel full of contradictions and spirituality moving around a basic human question: how much are you willing to sacrifice for the ones that you love?
Once this vicious plot is resolved, Joy finishes with a beautiful denouement that’s as good as any Ron Rash ever crafted. To be fair, the plot and the writing sag at times along the way, but between the riveting set up and the poetic ending Joy does not waste your time. There is no room for error in a 250-page novel and this young writer delivers again. Readers will pick up on the Faulkner overtones once the plotline is established.
Appalachian noir with room to grow
Joy does a solid job of balancing Appalachian noir with literary style. Having read all three of his novels, it’s a delight to see his work evolve and for him to improve the overall quality of his narratives. He’s improved his secondary and support characters immensely from the faceless personas in his earlier works. Dialogue could still be improved, but he’s nailed the voice of his characters once again.
To those unfamiliar with Appalachia, Joy may seem like a prophet detailing the plight of what some journalists have called “his people”. Those of us with deep roots and family in the region may find that description a bit lacking, but David Joy has earned his reputation as a first-class novelist. One does fear that his accolades as a writer of violent, angst-filled characters may skirt the line of reinforcing outside notions. As Joy’s career advances, it will be interesting to see how his work evolves in that regard.