There is a profound, substantially nuanced relationship between people and the geography they inhabit. When it comes to rural noir, a good understanding of this correlation usually means the difference between a narrative that exudes authenticity and understanding and one that reads like something a well-off author from the suburbs wrote while he or she imagined life on the wrong side of the tracks. David Joy’s The Weight of This World belongs to the first group. Joy’s novel deals with the dark, emotionally gritty, illegal elements that make rural noir such an important subgenre in the crime landscape, but it does so with an obviously deep comprehension of the demographic he writes about, the effects of being landlocked, and the way life on the mountains shapes the psyche of those who are born and raised in that place while belonging to the kind of demographic group for whom options are limited and escape, especially in the form of upward social mobility, is almost impossible.
Thad Broom and Aiden McCall grew up together in the mountains of Little Canada, in North Carolina. Their early years were spent without much in the way of nurturing, food, or a steady, supportive familial situation. Now, older and hardened by years of hard work, petty crime, booze, and drugs, the duo find themselves together again, living in a dilapidated trailer and without much to look forward to in terms of jobs or other opportunities. Thad is a veteran who can’t leave the ghosts of Afghanistan behind and Aiden is increasingly uncomfortable with his perennial situation and constantly dreams of moving away and starting a different life elsewhere, somewhere where there are jobs. Between them is April, Thad’s mother. Her past is packed with trauma that shaped her relationship with her son. She’s in a strange relationship with Aiden and wants to sell her house and land so she can move away and escape it all. When Thad and Aiden witness the accidental death of their drug dealer while scoring meth, the duo end up with a lot of drugs on their hands and no plan. What follows is a fast-paced, emotionally devastating, gritty tale of crime, friendship, and secret agendas that undoubtedly will become one of the go-to narratives whenever Appalachian/Southern/rural crime is discussed.
It’s easy to get carried away praising a novel like The Weight of this World, but what lies at the core of it, what truly matter in terms of making it a must-read, is that David Joy is a superb storyteller. When Joy writes about Thad and Aiden’s childhood, when he describes what’s going down between those who have the drugs and those who want the drugs, or when he tells readers about a place, suspension of disbelief is immediate and inescapable. He also has a knack for powerful, short deviations. Inside the larger narrative at play, this novel packs a plethora of back stories, secrets that are slowly revealed, and characters with pasts that have a direct effect on their present actions, and we learn about all of it without ever coming across a passage that bogs down the main story. Take for example the short paragraph in which we are given most of the details of how April ended up pregnant:
The man who broke her had said to keep quiet, and she did. She kept quiet one her stomach started to swell and the kids she’d grown up with called her a whore. Having sex didn’t make you a whore, but getting pregnant did. She kept quiet when her parents kicked her out of the house, and when they left the church and move out a little Canada from shame that they’d raised her. She kept quiet when Thad was old enough to ask about his father and she could barely look at him and all she could do was lie and say that the man was Cheroke. When George Trantham forced her to go back to that same church on Sundays, when she had to look at the man who’d hurt her sitting piously behind the reverend, she shoveled it all deep inside and never said a word. But all of that anger and all of that hatred was reflected onto Thad, the one reminder that could not be buried.
If exquisite grit is really a thing, then this novel epitomizes it. Joy takes readers to brutal, cold, dark places and never pulls any punches. However, there is a balance between those dark places that crime fiction usually fails to achieve: the blade slicing a gut is as sharp and painful as witnessing the crumbling of a friendship and a veteran’s psyche. Meanwhile, the larger themes of the novel, mainly the value of loyalty based on a lifelong friendship and the importance of blood ties, constantly remind us that we’re reading about complicated, regular people who find themselves in dangerous circumstances. There is none of the “Hey, look at these animals!” feel that some of the rural noir novels bring to the table. Joy knows crime, but it is his compassion for regular folks and his knowledge of the flaws we all carry around that make his storytelling so commanding.
Little Canada is, in many ways, a town you can find all across the world: small and inhabited by people who struggle to survive on a daily basis and who have spent too much time in the company of booze, drugs, bad influences, violence, aimless anger, and suffering. In this case, they also happen to be white and Christian, which adds an entire layer of complexity to the way they see life, each other, and those who aren’t the same color or originally from the same place. All of this adds up to three-dimensional characters that leave trace even after the last page has been turned thanks to their actions, feelings, and the way they see life:
When life went bad it always seemed to go bad in a hurry. Nothing came gradually so that a man might have a chance to grit his teeth and swallow a little bit at a time. No, life had a way of heaping shit by the shovelful like God was up there cleaning out the horse stalls and you just happened to be standing where He threw it. Aiden had been standing in a pile most of his life, but the past few days had been the worst he remembered, maybe even worse than when he was a child. That thought sent his mind racing and he wished to God that Aleve it would kick in so his would quit pounding, but they didn’t, and his hands started to sweat and he hated that feeling. God, he hated that feeling.
The Weight of This World is pure, blood-soaked, intense poetry from the gutter. This is a book that deals with physical and emotional wounds in ways that only the best contemporary noir authors can do (and there are instances in which that list seems to start and end with David Joy and Benjamin Whitmer). This novel is, simply put, full of heart. Go read it.
The Weight of This World
by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 272 p.
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