The Full Horizon of Loss

a review of When These Mountains Burn by David Joy

review by Chris McGinley

David Joy’s newest novel is about loss.  

It’s about the loss of loved ones, the loss of landscape, the loss of one’s ethnicity, the loss of a way of life.  Really, then, it’s about the full horizon of loss.  What’s so spectacular about When These Mountains Burn, though, is that Joy manages to weave things together in such a way that the collective sense of this loss is what readers will feel most keenly.  To wit, the novel examines several different kinds of loss, but somehow, they all seem to relate to one another.  They’re all part of a larger whole.  It’s this grander sense of a loss that Joy so admirably conveys throughout the novel, alongside the cleverly drawn characters and the fast-paced storyline.

The Appalachian-set narrative involves former Forest Service officer Raymond Mathis, a man plagued by both the death of his beloved wife and the never-ending saga of his adult son’s drug addiction.  It seems like all Ray wishes for is some well-deserved peace, a chance to read the nature books he so loves, to walk the hills, to smoke a cigar, or to take a sip of whiskey now and then. 

But it ain’t in the cards.

Ray’s son Ricky screws up so continually that Ray has become inured to it all.  Nothing shocks him nowadays.  But Ricky’s most recent trouble eclipses all others for seriousness, and Ray has promised himself that this is the absolute last time he will bail his son out.  However, along the way things go sideways, and Ray decides to right some wrongs with the world.  He gets in over his head trying to serve up some old-school mountain justice, and if it weren’t for his sheriff’s deputy niece, he might be in some real hot water.  Of course, family ties are strong among Joy’s characters, and the niece keeps her mouth shut, even against her own better judgment.

In fact, this is one of the main thematic threads of the story: kinship, family, and mountain friends who remain just as loyal as true family.  The connections, the relationships, make things easier for people like Ray. There’s that friend from the local watering hole, for example, ready at the drop of a hat to aid in a payback scheme, no questions asked.  Or there’s the old county doctor who still makes house visits and knows to write out instructions for medication because Ray’s too forgetful to remember them otherwise.  And then there’s the addict, the one who’ll do anything to protect his sister, even if it likely means his own demise.  Yet, in Joy’s capable hands, it’s these very same relationships that also complicate matters. It’s because the characters feel so deeply for one another that they get themselves in trouble.  It’s their intimate knowledge of one another that enables the deceptions that bring trouble in the first place.  And this is what makes the writing so strong.  Joy explores the complexities of the relationships, the friendships and loves complicated by generational differences but also shaped by mountain ethos and long-standing codes.  In one scene, Ricky tells a tall tale to his father, a junkie’s way to extricate himself from trouble.  Knowing his father’s weakness for dogs, he adds an injured hound into the tale, and thus convinces Ray of a lie.  Later, when Ray realizes what’s happened, he’s sickened:

When Ricky’d added the dog to the story, that was the red flag.  His son had a habit of working a dog into the lie because he knew his father’s weakness.  That was Ricky’s tell and he’d played that final hand true to form.  There was a sinking feeling in Ray’s chest.”

The lie is a fantastic little element in the novel, something more than a minor touch, and one of many such moments Joy employs to advantage.  It’s Ricky’s closeness to his father, his understanding of the older man’s prejudices, that encourages the deception, but it’s Ray’s deep love for his son that makes it work in the end.  Somewhere, deep down, Ray, too, knows the story is false, but again, he convinces himself of its truth.  Indeed, on some level he must.  It’s his dearest hope that his son might reform someday, and he can’t simply give up on the boy.  And here’s another nice touch.  For his part, Ricky never steals the object most dear to his father, the one that would fetch the most cash for a needed fix.  As often as he’s broken into his father’s house to run off with whatever he can grab, this item remains precious, and he can’t do it, desperate as he is for a fix.   Brilliant touches like this, passages and tiny moments that say so much about the characters, about who they are and where they’ve come from, run throughout the novel. 

For all of its cleverness and beauty, for all of its poignancy, When These Mountains Burn is also a helluva page turner, a thrilling ride that builds incredible tension in bouncing between its distinct (but always connected) narrative components.  It’s got colorful law enforcement types, undercover operatives, nasty and imaginatively drawn criminals, and of course, the many different types of mountain people who try to remain outside all the devilment . . . though it isn’t easy.  One facet of the story centers on Ray’s dilemma regarding his addict son, and the tale naturally extends itself into Ricky’s associates–those trying either to profit from the drug trade or to eliminate it.  Ray let’s his emotions get the better of him, and he’s soon drawn into a world he doesn’t know.  His actions set off an unforeseen chain of events, storylines that Joy navigates so deftly, arcs that he manages to connect thematically, and seamlessly—an incredible feat of writing, in fact.  The book can be read in two sittings, but readers should take more time with it to savor the subtleties and the sense of craft here.

Throughout the story, forest fires burn in surrounding regions, the light and smoke a constant reminder to Ray and the others that things are urgent nowadays.  It’s a metaphor for the hell Ray suffers, and for that sense of loss, again.  In the final pages, Joy switches gears and delivers some fantastic interior writing from Ray’s point of view:

The news anchor said that when it was over there would likely be nothing left, and though the thought struck him as cold, Ray found himself believing that maybe it was for the best.  Maybe it would be better if the whole world burned away into nothing.  Sometimes it was easier just to start from scratch than it was to keep building on top of something that was irreparably broken.

Yes, When These Mountains Burn is a dark tale, but the writing is beautiful.  It possesses a lyricism that emerges next to the beautifully and brutally rendered hills and hill folk.  It confronts the issues facing the region, but it’s no polemic.  It’s a transcendent piece of art, really, a gripping book, rich with understanding of a region and its people and how things have changed over time.  Again, it’s a sad and lovely tale about loss . . . and so much more.

Read other work by Chris in Reckon:

Fiction – The Screech Owl

<strong>Chris McGinley</strong>
Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley is the author of Coal Black (Shotgun Honey Books, 2019). He also writes for LitHub and other outlets. He lives with his wife in Lexington, KY, where he teaches middle school.