If you want to understand "Trump country," many booksellers will point you in the direction of J. D. Vance's memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy." But David Joy, an acclaimed novelist known for Appalachian noir, begs to differ.
“The reason ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was so successful,” Joy wrote on Twitter, “was because time and time again Appalachia is brought up as a problem rather than a place. It’s because you wanted a goddamn scapegoat and this was an easy place to point your finger.”
It’s a personal issue for Joy, who’s lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for most of his adult life. Online, he pushes back against depictions of Appalachia as a “20 square mile island made up of two inbred, Confederate flag waving families,” a place where “all the folks I’ve ever loved are dismissed as trash, where people are reduced to something subhuman simply because of where they live.”
The Appalachian region, which stretches all the way from northern Alabama to southern New York, is indeed complex and diverse — a place full of joy, beauty and culture despite widespread poverty and other hardships. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Joy’s fiction. If anything, you’d think Appalachia was as grim and deadly as Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic wilderness in “The Road.”
Joy’s third novel, “The Line That Held Us,” may have a lower body count than his first two, but there’s still plenty of gore. It begins with Darl Moody, a hunter who sneaks onto a neighbor’s land to poach deer out of season. When he accidentally shoots and kills a ginseng poacher after mistaking him for a boar, Darl calls his best friend, Calvin Hooper, to help dispose of the body.
Unlike Joy’s earlier protagonists, these men aren’t connected to the local meth trade, the source of so much violence in “Where All Light Tends to Go” (2015) and “The Weight of This World” (2017). But Darl and Calvin have another problem: the dead ginseng poacher’s older brother, Dwayne Brewer, is a megalomaniacal villain straight out of a Coen brothers movie.
We first meet Dwayne in a Walmart, “wearing a latex chimp mask he’d found on the floor by the Halloween decorations,” terrorizing a young mother out of sheer boredom between swigs of stolen beer. He’s a big man, “six-foot-five and two hundred sixty if he weighed an ounce,” who makes a living stealing chain saws and flat-screen TVs. His father, Red Brewer, an infamous drunk, “drove right off the side of a mountain,” killing himself and Dwayne’s mother, “but it was neither an accident nor a shame.” Since then, Dwayne has had only his little brother, Carol, nicknamed “Sissy” for his gentleness.
When Dwayne finds Sissy’s abandoned car by the side of the road, he asks the neighboring landowner to check his motion-activated game camera, hidden in the trees to track wildlife. Once they identify Darl and Calvin carrying something heavy out of the forest the night Sissy disappeared from those same woods, Dwayne begins plotting revenge.
Joy renders the Blue Ridge Mountains beautifully, right at the peak of autumn, “with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops.” But after the first few chapters, he spends more time describing corpses — in pages and pages of exquisite detail — than landscapes. The things that capture Joy’s attention are often grounded in the physical world. He devotes nearly an entire page to the mechanics of fieldstripping a pistol, another half-page to the composition of a concrete block-laying crew, and is often preoccupied with what his characters are doing with their bodies. Lines like, “Calvin walked back toward the couch with one hand down his sweatpants, the other holding his drink against the center of his chest,” are common, but don't always serve the story.
In her viral TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the “danger of a single story” about any particular people or place, especially when that story perpetuates negative stereotypes. Outside of his novels, it’s clear the single story Joy wishes to combat is the false notion that Appalachia is a homogeneous region full of bigotry and violence. And yet, within Joy’s otherwise powerful, lyrical fiction, Appalachia’s real-life complexity and diversity aren’t often apparent.
Dwayne — who sports a tattoo of “a skull wearing a cowboy hat with two pistols crossed over a Confederate flag,” quotes from the Bible to justify violence and daydreams about breaking skulls and slitting throats — is the quintessential negative Appalachian stereotype. Even Calvin, the family man who spends most of the book trying to escape Dwayne’s wrath, slips into casual homophobia when he refers to another character’s “little gay-ass Miata.”
Like the meth lord’s son in Joy’s first novel and the Afghan war veteran in his second, the characters in “The Line That Held Us” are forced to commit acts of violence because of the circumstances into which they were born or shoved. Perhaps Joy’s aim is akin to Richard Wright’s, whose breakout novel in 1940, “Native Son,” was fiercely criticized by some of his contemporaries, including James Baldwin, for perpetuating the stereotype of black men as violent criminals. Through fiction, Wright showed how social and economic conditions on Chicago’s South Side could provoke a black man to murder without remorse; Joy does something similar with white Appalachian men like Dwayne — men who were born into violence, addiction and poverty, and have never known anything else.
“People and place were some inseparable thing knotted together so long ago that no amount of time had allowed for an answer of how to untie them,” he writes, and if that’s true, David Joy is one hell of a knot-maker. Despite some shortcomings, “The Line That Held Us” is a suspenseful page-turner, complete with one of the absolutely killer endings that have become one of Joy’s signatures.
Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books and a contributing writer at Chicago magazine.