Imagine a tree in an old growth forest. The core is ancient. Its roots have been in the earth for centuries, drawing substance from it while helping shape the ecosystem around it and even becoming an ecosystem itself. However, at the tip of its branches burgeons new life, infant shoots that are new to the world. This tree is just like David Joy’s latest novel, When These Mountains Burn; something both old and new that embodies change and permanence while also reminding us that things we imagine monolithic, like places and cultures, are malleable, changing, ephemeral.
Raymond Mathis’s son is a heroin addict. Raymond, a widow still reeling from the loss of his wife, is forced to constantly come to his son’s rescue and lives with the knowledge that, unless things change, he’s going to end up dead. The last time he had to bail him out, things got dark and violent. His son owed some bad people a lot of money, and they taught him a lesson. Raymond knows the law won’t do much to control the opioid epidemic, so he takes things into his own hands. Meanwhile, Denny Rattler, a man who got hooked on opioids after an accident at work, will do anything to get high, and that put him in dangerous situations as well as on the Raymond’s path. Despite the chaotic atmosphere and apparent lawlessness, the DEA is keeping an eye Raymond and Denny’s North Carolina mountains, and they are waiting for the right moment to make a move. The undercover agent working the case will affect Raymond and Denny. The way in which their very different worlds inhabit the same space serves as the framework for a stunning narrative about place, culture, the opioid epidemic, and the search for redemption.
Joy does many things right in When These Mountains Burn. For starters, he takes his usual mix of violence and noir and uses them to frame a novel that deals with change and explores the way small towns in Appalachia have been systematically drained of resources and then abandoned, which has helped exacerbate the opioid crisis in the area. While there are plenty of addicts in this novel, there is no judgment. I’ve read everything Joy has published, and his profound understanding of the psychogeography of crime is among the best in the genre. That understanding expands to drug use. Joy knows that equating addiction with evil is dumb, and he shows that the core of addicts is no different than the core of others who haven’t fallen into that deadly cycle. Furthermore, he takes the time to present things from the perspective of users, not as an excuse for what they do but as a way of shining a light on some of the reasons why they fill their veins with deadly warmth. Here’s what Denny experiences after shooting up:
Nightglow narrowed into starlight that shone like broken glass and he lifted his hands as if to dip his fingers into the firmament and wash them in quicksilver shining. The world settled onto him like fog on a mountain, and, in that moment, was as close a thing to love as he’d felt in forever.
Besides violence and believable characters that serve as a vehicle to showcase human nature in extreme situations, Joy’s oeuvre another cohesive element that’s again present here—a strong sense of place. Joy has never tried to explain Appalachia in his work, probably because Appalachia is not something you can explain easily even if you just recount the region’s history. Instead of explaining things, When These Mountains Burn is a superb novel that will help attentive readers get a sense of the historical events that shaped modern Appalachia and the ways in which regional culture is shifting. Go back to the tree in the old growth forest and chop in down. If you leave it there and it survives, new life will soon sprout from the center of the monstrous wound. The same is happening with Appalachia. Old ways are dying, business have dried up and gone away, and new people are coming in, but everything that happens there is affected by and affects every new element. The last few pages of this novel offer some of Joy’s most brilliant, devastating prose, and they are as close as he has ever come to explain the geography whose realities shape his fiction:
When the timber was gone and the mountains were left as naked as the moon, families packed up and headed west to places like Oregon and Washington where the trees had yet to be touched. Jump forward sixty years and it was the same old story when the paper mills shut down, when the old plastics plants at the south end of the county left, when Dayco laid off everybody in Waynesville or when Ecusta disappeared from Brevard. The jobs came on slick-tongue promises from outsiders driving fancy cars and dressed in fancy suits, and left again folded in their ostrich-skin wallets when everything that could be taken was took. The people ran desperately behind them waving their hands through the dust and exhaust, dusty and exhausted, out of breath, beaten, and broken, and when they finally keeled over and stopped, they looked around to realize they were standing in places unfamiliar, that they were lost as turned-around dogs.
Take a minute and read that paragraph again, reveling in the way the writing imposes its rhythm on you like the best poetry: “…waving their hands through the dust and exhaust, dusty and exhausted, out of breath, beaten, and broken…” There’s not much left to say about Joy’s writing because his collection of glowing reviews have already said it all. However, I can add my two cents, which hopefully stand out and make readers pay attention: When These Mountains Burn is a novel about horrific things written with gorgeous prose. Most importantly, it’s a timely narrative about a changing culture caught in the interstitial space between what used to be and the inevitable future ahead.
When These Mountains Burn
by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 272 p.
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