When These Mountains Burn by David Joy
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues, Southern Grit
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There are few things I love more than an evocative writer. Someone who makes me feel what and where they’re writing about. Two that come to mind immediately: Pat Conroy in Prince of Tides, not only for the low country of South Carolina, but for New York when Tom goes there and Kent Haruf for Holt, Colorado, a small town that served as the setting for his Plainsong trilogy. I grew up in a Colorado town like that and was taken back to my childhood with every word. In both of these cases, the writer’s gift evinces a longing, but also beauty. David Joy’s talent manifests itself in a tone that falls more in the shadows than in sunlight, but in the ache of his words there’s an awful beauty.
Joy’s latest novel is set in a small town in the western mountains of North Carolina, a part of America being decimated by the opioid epidemic. In When These Mountains Burn, Joy triangulates the crisis through Raymond, a man whose son has been an addict his whole life; Rodriguez, a young DEA agent making no inroads into the drug ring strangling the area; and Denny, a construction worker who’s left in pain and unemployed by a workplace accident.
Raymond’s son Ricky is “forty-one years old closing in on a casket”. Raymond gets a call one night from Ricky’s dealer saying either Raymond pays ten thousand dollars to settle his son’s debt or he’ll kill him. His son has been stealing from him since he was a teen, but Raymond pays the debt, then turns to the police to help bring down the dealer. When they don’t respond as quickly as he wants he decides to take matters into his own hands.
Rodriguez is the undercover agent trying to crack the ring where Ricky and addicts like him buy their drugs. It isn’t until he meets a junkie who tells him about the “Outlet Mall” on Cherokee tribal land nearby that he finds a way in. At about the same time Denny is on his way to his next heroin high with 3 other men, one of whom is Ricky. Things go wrong and Denny awakens alone next to a corpse. With each page, Joy draws these strangers closer and closer to the flash point that’s lit their lives on fire.
The surface of these men’s lives is churning rapids, the search for justice or redemption pulling them onward with no respite. But it’s Joy’s portrayal of the still water of their inner lives that slows the mind and lets the story settle hard in the bones. For Raymond, it’s the loss of his beloved wife to a lingering cancer.
A man loses a woman like that, time just sort of surrenders itself to the before and after. What was no longer is and can’t be again. That’s how time works. A man gets trapped in the after. There was the life he had with her, and then there wasn’t. There comes a point in life when all there is is remembering.
This grief boils down into rage at his son, who even after being freed by his father, continues to use.
In Denny’s case, it’s the overwhelming despair of his poor choices hitting him in the face time and again. Of knowing that he’d had a life, but lost it in pursuit of a feeling, a high, that can never be regained. Like Ricky, the only path is down.
These glimpses, coupled with the peripheral lives of those around Raymond and Denny, are the heart of When These Mountains Burn. There are family members and old friends trying to grapple with a new world in which they don’t quite fit. Many, like Raymond, are people of the land and a simpler time who feel their way of life is going up in flames. The plot may be combustible, but it is the characters who give When These Mountains Burn its warmth.
“Used to be we took care of our own up here. Used to be when something needed done we took care of it ourselves. Then we let folks from the outside come in and tell us how we ought to run things, and I want you to look around at where that’s got us.”
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*I received a free copy of this book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in exchange for an honest review.*