Wildfires spread in David Joy’s latest novel

DISCONNECTED: Like many writers with books published during the COVID-19 pandemic, David Joy is promoting his latest novel via virtual events. But unlike most of his peers, the Jackson County resident must do so while contending with the challenges of unreliable internet access — which is necessitating trips to Cullowhee for stable Wi-Fi. “Rural connectivity is a disaster,” he says, but notes that the recent increased reliance on technology for remote work has shined a brighter light on the matter, especially as it relates to the area’s schoolchildren. Photo by Ashley T. Evans

Both land and heart are afire in acclaimed author David Joy’s latest book, When These Mountains Burn, available Tuesday, Aug. 18. Set in Western North Carolina during the 2016 wildfires, Joy’s novel offers an unflinching look at addiction, family ties and loss. To celebrate its release, Malaprop’s will host a virtual launch party that same day at 6 p.m.

At the story’s center are two characters: Ray Mathis and Denny Rattler. The former is a retired forester who no longer recognizes the world around him — land riddled with heroin needles and “No Trespassing” signs. The latter, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, previously worked construction until a job-related injury led to a dependency on opioids. The two men wind up irreversibly connected through Ray’s 41-year-old son Ricky, who also struggles with drug problems.

“Addiction for me is something that I’ve always written about and it’s largely because it’s something I understand,” says Joy. “I’ve been around addicts my whole life.”

Rage and love

But unlike in his previous novels, Joy continues, Ray’s character introduced a new challenge. “He’s the father of an addict,” the author says. “And I think that was a hard perspective for me to really try and get my head around.”

Rage and love simultaneously dwell inside Ray. The novel begins with him paying off his son’s $10,000 debt to a local drug dealer. But shortly thereafter, Ray discovers Ricky passed out with a needle in his neck, leading the father to forcefully sever ties with his son once and for all.

“There were times when Ray wondered if some folks were just born sorry,” Joy writes in the book, “and that thought hurt the worst because that was no way to think about his own flesh and blood, no way to think of his son.”

Yet these conflicting thoughts continue to haunt Ray throughout the novel, ultimately inspiring the retired forester to take extreme actions to combat the region’s illegal drug trade.

Writing across race

One of Joy’s main interests in crafting When These Mountains Burn was to examine different responses to WNC’s opioid crisis. Specifically, the author wanted to juxtapose how the relics of a dying mountain culture react in comparison to members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, a group that Joy notes is experiencing a cultural renaissance through a resurgence of the Cherokee language as well as a more accurate representation of the tribe’s history.

An important factor, Joy notes, was understanding his limitations and identifying his blind spots. “Something I’ve never done as a white, male writer is write across race,” he says. “There is a long history of people who look like me stealing the stories of others.”

Joy continues, “I’m lucky in that I have a lot of friends who are enrolled members” — including Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, whose debut novel Even As We Breathe will be published in September. “They were very generous in letting me ask hard questions and giving me honest answers.”

Joy’s interviews, along with his research, fostered confidence in tackling the topic from an informed perspective. And his poise comes across on the page. “If the United States government thought holding fifty thousand acres in trust and allowing a couple of casinos had settled the debt, they were out of the minds,” Joy writes early in the novel. “There were Cherokee who refused to carry twenty-dollar bills because they didn’t want to look at Andrew Jackson’s face. The Trail of Tears wasn’t a singular event in history. It was a continuum. The government had never stopped shitting on natives.”

Still, Joy realizes shortcomings are unavoidable. “You have to recognize that no matter how much research you do, you’re still not ever going to fully grasp the perspective,” he says. “And so when this book comes out and somebody who grew up on The [Qualla] Boundary tells me I got something wrong, I can’t be defensive about that. And I can’t argue with that. What I have to do is listen. I think that’s the big thing for me when we’re talking about writing across race. It’s about accepting responsibility for your failures because they are inevitable.”

Race to the finish

What Joy undoubtedly gets right in his latest novel is the complexity of his characters, a deep sense of place and a plot that refuses to slow down.

“I love when a book is able to create the kind of propulsion and pacing to where you reach the end of a chapter and you look at the clock and you realize you’ve got somewhere to be, but you don’t want to quit reading, so you flip ahead to see how many pages the next chapter is to see if you can sneak one more in,” Joy says. “[Those are] the kind of books I want to write.”

Joy certainly achieves this goal with When These Mountains Burn. The story’s short chapters manage to pack plenty of depth while keeping readers racing across WNC — from Cherokee to Sylva to a brief interrogation scene in Asheville. All the while the fires rage on as Joy’s characters struggle to make sense of the flames and the world around them.

These assets converge in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, during which Denny wakes in his car to windows covered in what appears to be snow. Turning on the windshield wipers, he quickly discovers the true source.

“The air was filled with smoke. Ash fell from the sky. The car was covered, as was the ground where he stood. There was something strange about knowing everything was burning down around him but not being able to see the flames. He’d caught the news on a screen at the gas station pump while he rattled the last of five dollars into his tank. Wildfires stretched the Appalachian chain from Alabama to Kentucky, tens of thousands of acres burning across western North Carolina alone and not a drop of rain to come. The sky was yellow with smoke and for Denny Rattler it felt like a sign from God. Deep down he figured it was probably the end of the world.”

To register for the free Malaprop’s virtual release party on Aug. 18, visit avl.mx/7v3.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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