I hadn’t planned on a week of reviews about dark (or difficult) fiction, but realized that’s where my reading had gone after finishing David Joy’s The Line That Held Us. It’s the story of Darl Moody, who while poaching on a neighbor’s land, shoots and kills another man. The man he kills is the brother of Dwayne Brewer, a behemoth of a man, known for violence and pursuing justice outside the law. In Darl’s terror, he knows the body and his crime can never be discovered so he turns for help to his best friend, Calvin Hooper, and they remove the body and bury it. But just because this is a small Appalachian town, doesn’t mean modern technology doesn’t exist and Dwayne soon has video proof of what happened. What follows is a nightmare of revenge and come-to-Jesus moments of personal decisions.
It would be so easy to turn The Line That Held Us into a stereotypical vendetta of ignorant hillbillies out to kill each other for the simple joy of killing. Thankfully, Joy doesn’t go that way (and I wouldn’t read a book like that, so no surprise). Instead of flat, single dimension characters, Joy imbues each of the protagonists in the novel with a deeper humanity, which is no easy job when you’re talking about people who can rationalize stealing and killing. Darl is not the best of men, but he feels a deep responsibility to support his family and meat is expensive. Killing the Brewer boy is an honest if horrifying mistake and involving his friend Calvin comes at great cost. For Calvin, Darl has always been there for him. The young man is dead, nothing good will come of it, so even if he cannot rationalize it as a good thing, he believes he must help his friend in the same way his friend would help him. Even if it means putting those whom he loves most, namely his girlfriend, Angie, at risk.
Dwayne Brewer is at the center of the firestorm that is The Line That Held Us and even though he is a wrecking ball, Joy presents him as a man educated by the Old Testament with a love for only his brother and all of nature.
“You know, what you’ve done to this mountain is worse than anything I’ve done in my life. Any given day any man can kill somebody, but this…this right here.” He opened his arms and spun a circle to the cleared land around them. “You’ve spit in the face of God.”
His understanding of the world is that to punish is to teach and he teaches a lot of people. It is his only way to deal with an unjust world.
Granted, the idea that the destruction of nature is a greater sin than killing a man is not accepted thought for most people, but Joy is not excusing Dwayne for who he is. He’s painting a portrait of men in a world that has left them behind, over which they have no control. None of the characters in The Line That Held Us is going anywhere with their life. So they hold onto the only connections they have and for Dwayne it’s his brother and the natural world around him. With his gentle brother gone, there is nothing left to lose.
The novel takes some dark and even grotesque turns. There is a graphic element of death that is hard to read, but vital to understanding the novel. By its end Joy has transcended a series of events and decisions made with the best intentions leading to the worst consequences into something more. I can’t put it into words, but for all the novel’s blackness there is a grim, poignant beauty to The Line That Held Us.