Where All Light Tends to Go is unflinchingly violent, difficult to witness, and tragic from its outset.
Where All Light Tends to GoPublisher: Putnam
Length: 260 pages
Author: David Joy
Publication date: 2015-03
Appalachia is a place filled with dualities. Having spent many of my early years in and around the area, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the picturesque landscape often associated with it hides a deeper, darker breed of humanity. Mountainous regions are adept at hiding secrets, and folks who have made the difficult terrain of the mountains their home have done so for generations -- and they don't accept change willingly. It's the darker elements found in the crevices of winding roads and wooden cabins that David Joy explores in his debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go.
Joy's novel centers on a young protagonist, Jacob McNeely, and the ties that bind him to his broken family. His father is a kingpin meth dealer, his mother is an addict without scruples, his love interest, Maggie Jennings, is a new high school graduate, and Jacob is indoctrinated into both his father's business and into accepting the path that's been provided to him.
When we first meet Jacob, he's scaling the water tower, opting for a better view of the high school graduation celebrations, and he eyes the new graduates with a combination of disdain and envy. Jacob dropped out of school as soon as he could and works solely for his father, who, essentially, runs the town. He keeps cops on his payroll, has a high-powered lawyer on retainer, and keeps an auto garage as a front to launder all his drug money.
Jacob, naturally, wants out. But he's held in place by fear, tradition, and family ties. It's the most basic paradox of humanity; no one finds it easy to completely abandon their family, no matter how terrible the circumstances. And Jacob's circumstances are suitably terrible. His father clearly uses him for his own gain and demeans him physically and emotionally; his mother can barely string a clear conversation together; the cops are always one wrong move away; his family name carries lethal consequences. Further, he's being bullied by his father to take part in the more violent dealings of his drug business.
Jacob's first violent encounter with a snitching addict spirals out of control, an event that comes back from the grave to complicate an already volatile situation. What becomes impossibly clear from the outset is that Jacob is alone and won't outrun the scars of his family's dealings. The McNeely name carries its own brand of blood that won't wash off.
There's a lot about Joy's novel that works; and some other scenes and plot points that don't. Jacob's voice is captured well, and nuance of his inflection demonstrates Joy's deep affection for his character. He drives the narrative as an 18-year-old boy would; through a mixture of sadness, ennui, vibrancy, and plainspokenness.
Joy has a keen ear for his character's speech, but the colloquialisms are more than a bit overused. Jacob has his own way of speaking that's bound to the region, but Joy hammers the regional dialect home continuously. It detracts in some ways from the story, but not enough to derail it entirely.
Likewise, the other characters are underdeveloped; Maggie is innocent and trusting but she remains on the periphery for most of the novel, Jacob's father is often overly insulting to his son, calling him "bitch" and "pussy" quite frequently, and Jacob's mother seems set up only as a pin to be knocked down later for narrative drive.
Certain plot points stick out as being a little unfathomable; for example, when Jacob is set up by a local cop. How does this work with a cop on the father's payroll? The cop figures out through some blatant crime scene clue that Jacob's father is the man responsible for killing his younger brother. (Jacob's father leaves mini-Bibles at the scene of all of his murders -- odd for an organized meth kingpin, I know. Indeed, Jacob's father acts a bit irrationally at times for a wizened meth dealer who has probably been in a few sticky situations before.)
The cop, knowing that Jacob wants out, tells him he will get revenge on his father and leave the safe open for him (Jacob) to come take his share of the money. But he double-crosses him and takes almost all of it -- except for a stack of bills that he leaves behind.
As a plot device, it's fine, but all of this is revealed in act four of the novel. After we've meandered along with Jacob for a good 200 or so pages and we know that his fate is sealed. Now the "paid cop" shows up to side with Jacob before setting up the crime scene to catch Jacob there.
Despite a few of these narrative flaws, however, Where All Light Tends to Go is difficult to put down. It trips along at breakneck speed, spiraling ever-downward until the book's desperate conclusion. Jacob is a character with head and heart, despite his poor choices and occasional drug use. That suspended realm between teen and adulthood is a tricky area to navigate, but Joy threads that thin line between absurdity and terror with aplomb. And Joy's attention to detail -- especially when it comes to guns, drugs, and all things Appalachian -- is dead on.
Without giving away crucial story details, the novel's ending may be the finest pieces of prose for the entire 260 pages. All of the themes that Joy excavates -- family scars, spirituality, morality, and redemption -- coalesce into a grand arc that more than makes up for some of the novel's rough patches. Where All Light Tends to Go isn't a novel for the weak-hearted; it's unflinchingly violent, difficult to witness, and tragic from its outset. But most of the best literature is.
Literature is at its finest when it refuses to turn away or to acknowledge the light that we all seek. Jacob seeks the light and Joy guides him toward it, although the hard truth is that the light isn't where all goodness resides. Sometimes it lies in the darkest corners of ourselves.