Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Line That Held Us" by David Joy

After reading David Joy's newest novel, I've come to the conclusion that writers like him and Michael Farris Smith deserve their own sub-genre of fiction, one that I'll call "bleak-tion."

This sub-genre would contain beautifully written books in which a feeling of despair or doom is quite pervasive, and you know that something monumentally, well, bleak is going to happen. (See Joy's The Weight of This World or Smith's Desperation Road or The Fighter.) I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but you shouldn't read these novels in search of a belly laugh.

In the latest addition to the world of bleak-tion, The Line That Held Us, Darl Moody is a country boy who may not have a ton of ambition, but he has taken good care of his mother as well as his married sister and her family since the death of his father a few years before. He's never done anything worse than drink one (or two) too many, except perhaps try and hunt a deer before the season officially opens.

When he's convinced he has seen a colossal buck roaming another man's land, he needs to find it. He knows that poaching is wrong, and he knows it's even worse when you're hunting off the land of a man who is out of town for his sister's funeral, but this buck could provide enough for him and his family to eat. Although the deer proves elusive, he spots a wild hog and takes aim.

It's not a hog he has killed, however; it's Carol "Sissy" Brewer, the slower, gentler son of the brash, violent Brewer family. Carol was hunting ginseng on the farm when he was shot. Darl doesn't know what to do, so he turns to the only person he has ever been able to count on, his best friend since childhood, Calvin Hooper. Despite Calvin's misgivings, he agrees to help Darl bury Carol, and the two vow never to tell anyone what happened that night, which becomes progressively harder as they become increasingly haunted by the events of that evening.

When Carol's older brother Dwayne comes looking for him, he knows right away something bad has happened, and he will leave no stone unturned until he finds what happened to him, and whom shall be held responsible. This determination to uncover the mystery of his brother's disappearance sets him on a collision course with Darl and Calvin, and threatens to upend all of their lives. Dwayne believes in an eye for an eye, and he will exact his revenge, no matter how many people get hurt in the process.

Needless to say, this isn't a happy read, but it is powerful—even gut-wrenching at times—and you probably can predict how the story will unfold. But Joy is an exceptional storyteller, and even the commonplace becomes more fascinating when seen through his lens. He so accurately evokes the mounting sense of dread, the fear, the unhingedness that his characters feel, and he draws you into a story which only rarely has moments of lightness.

Fair warning: this is a book with some graphically depicted violence (mostly toward humans and once toward an animal) and some pretty detailed descriptions of the process a body goes through once a person's life ends. (It made for a somewhat squeamish read on my red-eye flight, I must tell you.) If those things are triggers for you, you'll probably want to pass this one by.

You may want to have a more lighthearted novel at the ready after you finish The Line That Held Us, but you should definitely read this, if only to see a master of "bleak-tion" at work once again.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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