With his first two novels, Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of this World, David Joy established himself as one of the preeminent voices in Appalachian noir. However, he was clearly not content with that position. The Line That Held Us, his latest release, offers everything he already gave readers while commandingly treading new ground. While the narrative contains the sine qua non elements of noir and once again takes place within the context of rural Appalachian psychogeography, The Line That Held Us is also an emotionally devastating exploration of filial relationships and an innovative look at the deeply-rooted religious fervor of the Bible Belt. Furthermore, the novel is a wonderful hybrid that floats above the blurry dividing lines of a few genres. The best way to describe it would be a lithe, powerful beast wrapped in the skin of a crime novel but with the organs, brain, and soul of a Southern Gothic–and poetry running through its veins.
The Line That Held Us begins with Darl Moody having an accident. He is hunting for a large buck he’s been chasing for years, but when he finally has his shot lined up, he misses. The bullet, however, finds a body; that of a man digging for ginseng illegally. The man is Carol “Sissy” Brewer, brother of Dwayne Brewer and member of a family known in the area for their knack for violence. With a body in his hands, Darl panics and calls his best friend Calvin Hooper, the only man he knows will help him take care of the situation. The duo does their best to bury the body, but when Dwayne comes looking for his brother he stumbles onto a bloody trail that quickly leads him to Darl and Calvin. Sissy was the thing Dwyer loved most and losing him makes him take revenge of the two men who put him on the ground. Unfortunately for Darl and Calvin, Dwyer is a huge man for whom extreme violence is a way of life. What follows is a gory maelstrom of vengeance and death that will tear apart everything Darl and Calvin ever cared about.
In terms of plot, The Line That Held Us keeps a relatively straight path and steers clear from that annoying practice so common in contemporary crime fiction of trying to provide at least three big twists or surprises (don’t worry, the ending packs a unique type of punch). However, Joy uses that straightforward approach to do two things. The first is creating characters that are multilayered and have distinctive voices. The second is to allow his narrative to bridge the gaps between noir, horror, and Southern Gothic. In terms of characters, Dwayne Brewer is not only the crowning jewel of this novel but also one of the most memorable characters I’ve read this year. He is a brutal man for whom extreme violence comes naturally. He is a monster. However, he is a monster whose actions are righteous from time to time. He reacts to things, and in the case of his brother, many readers, me included, will find themselves empathizing with him. By creating such a complex character, one that is at once immoral and just, hyperviolent and loyal, Joy forces readers to face their own values and reexamine their preconceived notions of justice, punishment, and devotion. Plus, if you like hard characters, Dwyer will entertain you like few characters can:
Some swear a predator can smell fear, but whether there’s an actual scent or something else entirely doesn’t really matter. Dwayne Brewer could sense weakness. That feeling came to him like goosebumps. That natural. That fast. And in those moments Dwayne had known he was in complete control.
In terms of the second element mentioned above, the bridging of genres, Joy pulls off something special here: a new type of Southern Gothic that eschews the slow buildup characteristic of the genre and delivers action at the pace of a crime novella while keeping the important elements like horrific thoughts, permeating anger, grotesque characters, and alienation. Also, while Southern Gothic as a genre has been traditionally concerned with showing how the idea of a pastoral, mostly agricultural South full of God-fearing folks is something that almost completely ignores the region’s history of oppression and racism, Joy does no such thing. Instead, he somehow manages to show how the area has remained unchanged in some aspects while changing completely in others. White poverty and lack of education are at the center of this novel, but not as a tool to explain away the actions of the characters; instead, they are used to help us understand how being tied in very profound ways to the land and the history of that land goes a long way in shaping individuals, informing their actions, and affecting their decision-making process. In other words, the events here could have happened anyway, but the way they happened could only have occurred in Appalachia.
The last element that deserves time in the spotlight is the writing itself. Joy has a unique voice, but one that fits in with the work of past masters like William Faulkner and equals that of contemporary masters like Donald Ray Pollock. For example, the way he deals with Dwyer’s views on religion make for superb writing because, as bizarre as they are, they make sense within the context of his life:
Dwayne thought of his brother and he thought of Christ and he could see no difference between. Both had been born at the bottom, their burden the weight of the wicked. Sin be the thorns in His head, the nails in His hands and feet, the spear in His side. Sin be the spit on Carol’s face, the ridicule or poverty, the beatings, the torment of silence. It pleased the Lord to bruise them, to put their hearts to grief, for only through that suffering, through bearing the sin of many, could they make open the doors for those who had done them harm.
And while we’re on the subject of beautiful prose, the end of the book (don’t worry, I never give spoilers), is outstanding. If most of the narrative is like a river of words that quickly morph into fast, destructive, foaming whitewater rapids, the end is the beautiful, tranquil river that winds its way smoothly under a canopy of trees. In that last silence, the words scream as they burst with beauty, birthing a unexpected poem that, like a few other things in the novel, forces readers to contemplate inevitability and the way it’s mostly shaped by our own thoughts. To close out a book in stellar fashion after illuminating the darkest, ugliest parts of human nature is something that stands a testament to Joy’s talent:
The night gave way to morning, the stars drawing back and drawing back as darkness surrendered to light. A tangerine sun blushed the sky with a hue so breathtakingly beautiful that he was moved to tears. All that he’d carried all of his life rained from his eyes and soaked into the ground. Sunrise singed trees crimson, lit the lake the color of blood. The word dwelled there amongst him and he wept until he was weightless as dust blown to air.
The Line That Held Us
by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 272 p.