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Book Review: The Weight of This World

By (March 15, 2017) 2 Comments

The Weight of This World

by David Joy

Putnam, 2017

Author David Joy staked out a claim to the now-familiar territory of meth-addled Appalachian trailer trash in his critically acclaimed 2015 debut novel Where All the Light Tends to Go, and his new novel, The Weight of This World, returns rather doggedly to that territory, serving up for his readers 250 more pages of often lyrical prose describing seedy people doing stupid things for petty reasons.The ‘this world’ of the book’s title is a world of soiled clothes, shoddy legal records, slipshod housecleaning, and shoplifted pretty much everything, a world of losers who think constantly about their narrow misses at getting the big break that might have changed things.

In this latest novel, it’s also the world of two friends, Aidan McCall and Thad Broom, who’ve grown up in the mountain hollers of “Little Canada” as inseparable and half-feral best friends – inseparable, that is, until Thad ships off for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He comes back physically wounded (some vague allusions to a back problem) and mentally scarred, at once mangled by his combat experience and somehow weirdly anchored by it: “the place from where Thad emerged felt more real than home,” we’re told. “Combat had made him forget the before, and there was nothing that mattered afterward. There was only war.”

Aidan’s likewise internally adrift, feeling at home on the mountain but also feeling acutely aware of the trap the place represents. And since like all of Joy’s other main characters he’s a whiny little twerp, he blames his loser status on circumstances:

The older Aidan got, the more complicated the world had become, and so he preferred to live in the past, to relive those moments in his mind as often as he could. He believed that, given the right set of circumstances, he could re-create what had been before. With enough money and a fresh start, Aidan and Thad could set things right, but, as he waited in the hospital parking lot, that was about as far away as a man could dream.

In the novel’s present, Aidan and Thad are prickly best friends and Aidan is sleeping with Thad’s mother April (as folks do, up in the hollers), and the two pass their nights stripping copper out of houses abandoned when the housing bubble burst and selling it to a shady contractor for enough money to buy drugs from a skeevy “shake and break” meth cooker who lives in a shack up on the mountain. They’re visiting this drug dealer when the man accidentally blows his brains all over the living room (as folks do, up in the hollers), and it doesn’t take Aidan and Thad long before they decide to loot his shack. They find a windfall of cash and meth, and when the man they contact to buy the meth double-crosses them, Joy comes into his strengths as a chronicler of manic hayseed noir.

None of it is even remotely believable despite its Southern Poverty Law Center photorealism, and none of it is the least bit involving, mainly because both Aidan and Thad are opportunistic thugs constantly on the brink of betraying each other – so who gives a rip what happens to either of them? (And bad as they are, they represent the deep end of Joy’s character pool; the women in this book are little more than livestock.) The kind word for much of Joy’s dialogue would be stylized, and its inconsistencies can be annoying, as in this quick exchange in which Aidan is angry with Thad for hinting about their windfall to two strung out young women stashed back in his trailer:

“You don’t know them two from Adam.”

“What the hell you think’s going to happen?”

“I’ll tell you exactly what might happen. They could rob you blind, or more than likely walk around getting a good look at everything and then talk somebody else into robbing us. They could get picked up for something petty and go telling the law anything to keep from getting pinched.”

“They ain’t going to rat on us.”

“And why the hell not?” Aidan’s voice was suddenly loud, and he clenched his teeth as if to try and keep his voice down so the girls inside wouldn’t hear. “You tell me one good reason why those two I there wouldn’t rat us out to keep themselves out of trouble. Hell, everybody on this shit goes to blabbing before they’re even cuffed up. What makes you think them two’s different?”

“Them two,” “those two,” “them two,” “those two” – it’s enough to give you white trash-whiplash.

There’s some poetry in these pages, most of it dealing with the natural world, and Joy must know his own knack for oddball action sequences, since he uses that knack to goose his narrative at regular intervals. Readers who liked Where All the Light Tends to Go will certainly like The Weight of This World. But none of that makes these caricatures any less manipulative, and none of it eliminates the strong whiff of condescension in these pages (my guess would be that Joy would say he cannot be guilty of condescension because he grew up with people like Aidan and Thad, but I can always hope I’m wrong about that). And in this case, the cure for both manipulation and condescension is the same: leave the meth labs and peeling trailers, come down out of the hollers, and try writing about people for a change.