Title: Where All Lights Tends To Go
Rating: 4 Stars
One of my favorite genres goes by many names. My favorite name for it is Appalachian Noir. It’s set in some exceedingly rural part of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, or Illinois. Yes, I know that all of those states don’t necessarily include the Appalachians. I’m specifically referring to Colin Woodard’s book regarding the 11 American nations. His thesis, as you can probably guess, is that the 48 continental states are strictly artificial constructs. If you track migration patterns, social norms and behavior, you can identify 11 specifically different nations within the continental US. One of those nations is named Greater Appalachia, which traces the migration of the hardscrabble, fiercely independent, predominately Scots-Irish population. This area covers a good chunk of the central United States.
Using that definition, there is a body of current literature that fits into a pattern, both geographically and socially. I’m talking about Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, and Chris Offut, among others. The stories are about the forgotten people of the flyover states. They live in towns or hamlets or hollows. The towns were probably never really healthy, but are now positively dying. Manufacturing has moved overseas, farming has become industrialized, and there is no hope of recovery. In these failed towns are the old people tied to the land that will die there, the meth addicts that try to lose themselves, the dealers that supply them, and the law officers feebly trying to keep the peace while also themselves trying to get along.
These stories all have a desperate, hopeless, fatalistic energy to them. They’re peopled by characters that everyone has given up on, that have given up on themselves, but still grimly survive from moment to moment.
Joy’s novel follows this same pattern. The protagonist is Jacob. He dropped out of high school two years ago at the age of sixteen to work full time for his father, the leader of a meth ring. His father is a brutal monster who will do whatever he needs to do to survive. Jacob’s mom, divorced from her father, is a chronic meth addict bent on self destruction.
Given the hand that he was dealt, Jacob has no illusions regarding his future. He’s stuck in the town working for his father until he dies. The one light in his life is a young woman named Maggie that he grew up with, once dated, and is still hopelessly in love with. She’s full of grace and is destined to escape the town. Seeing her escape is the one joy that Jacob allows himself.
Things take a turn for the worse when, in the course of torturing a supposed informant, Jacob and two of his father’s henchmen kill the informant and leave him in the hills for dead. He’s found, days later, in a coma, but still alive. If he comes out of the coma, he can finger the henchmen and potentially bring down Jacob’s father as well. At the same time, Jacob’s mom goes off on a meth binge that ends up having her screaming Jacob’s father’s secrets to the police.
Jacob’s father cannot let these two things stand. Jacob, hating his father and pitying his mother, is caught in the middle, desperately wanting to escape but knowingly condemned to his destiny.
In all of this, he sees Maggie and dares to dream of an escape and a life that seems impossible.
One mark against this novel is that the female characters are not treated well. The male characters are not either, but at least they have some sense of agency. Jacob’s mom and his father’s girlfriend are not fleshed out. Maggie is painted as an angelic ideal. Granted, this novel is written in the first person by Jacob, but it still would have been nice to have a little bit more thought put into the female characters.
This, to a large degree, nearly qualifies as a Young Adult novel. You have a young man trying to be a ‘man’, but not really understanding what that means and is struggling to come up with a definition of it that he can live it. Living in an environment of depravity and immorality, can he make choices to allow himself to escape that fate?
If you’ve read this genre before, then you’ll know that winning is really never an option here. The best that you can hope for is to lose on your own terms.
By the end, Jacob understands this all too well.