The Line That Held Us
by David Joy
David Joy follows up 2017's The Weight of This World with The Line That Held Us, a new novel set against the rural Appalachian background of his previous two, a book that begins with an accidental murder. A man named Darl Moody is out hunting one night when he spots something in the brush he thinks is a wild boar. He shoots, and to his horror his target turns out to be Carol Brewer, “a half-wit born to a family that Jesus Christ couldn't have saved.” Darl, who'd been poaching in Coon Coward's woods, has just shot dead another poacher: Carol, known to everybody as “Sissy,” had been stealing from Coward's ginseng patch.
Understandably, Darl panics. He doesn't call the police, and not because he's worried about his own legal jeopardy. What paralyzes him is his fear of Sissy's brother Dwayne, an enormous and passion-hatched borderline lunatic whose vengeance, Darl knows, would be all-consuming, reaching out to endanger not only Darl but everybody he knows. To avoid that fate, he comes up with the kind of savage plan only desperate men concoct: he'll simply dig a hole, bury the dead body, and walk away from the whole disaster. But to dig a hole before dawn, he needs help.
Readers of Joy's fiction will be able to guess the next part. The men in Joy's novels are never alone – in fact, when the mood is on him, this author is one of the most intrepid contemporary chroniclers of male friendship. Darl calls his friend Calvin Hooper, the one person he's certain would do anything for him.
They finish just in time (“The night was all but gone by then, and they rode back through the field with a faint breath of light growing behind the eastern ridge”), but it's useless, as attempts to avoid fate have been since the Oresteia. Dwayne is shattered by the disappearance of his brother, and inexorably, his suspicions begin to fall on the guilty men. “A man's mind is its own kind of hell,” he tells Calvin during one of the book's most effectively tense scenes, when Dwayne makes Calvin dig up his brother's body at gunpoint. Dwayne doesn't kill Calvin – he collects his brother's body, carries it away, and slumps it, bloated and blotched, against the wall of an old root cellar, where the living man is overcome with grief for the only person he's ever loved:
Guilt washed over him then, an immense shame that hit him with an intensity he'd never felt before. He crashed to his knees sobbing and toppled face-first into his brother's wetted chest. Dwayne wailed and screamed and pounded his fists against the ground until his knuckles crusted with dirt and blood. “I'm sorry,” he stammered. “I'm sorry!” His words were muffled but loud. The tears would wane only when something greater found him. Only one feeling could mask that kind of sadness, only one emotion he knew more powerful than suffering. In time, it would fill him. Only in time would he find a place to aim that rage.
That “something greater” is vengeance, which doesn't care at all that Sissy's death was an accident. Vengeance transforms Dwayne Brewer, already an outsized figure, into an engine of bloodlust and retribution, and it transforms the novel as well. In The Weight of This World, two petty, pathetic protagonists receive a tedious punishment for a ridiculously ad hoc transgression. Some parts of that setup might have been able to lay claim to a certain verisimilitude, but a novel is a drama, not a showroom mirror. In The Line That Held Us, Joy rebalances the equation perfectly: the two men are decent, ordinary guys (and their friendship so truly realized it's applause-worthy), their crime is terrifying, ultimate, tragic – and their punishment is Biblical. The result is riveting.
And the greatest success in the book is the creation of Dwayne Brewer. When we first meet him he's brutal and overbearing, but also playful and capable of accessing a kind of honest morality (“Empathy's not standing over a hole looking down and saying you understand,” he thinks early on, in what could stand as the book's motto. “Empathy is having been in that hole yourself”). He and his brother had survived a viciously abusive childhood by standing with each other – the loss of that other self unbalances Dwayne in ways Joy never allows to become entirely predictable, or entirely loathsome.
The Line That Holds Us is an autopsy of what friendship really is – its assumptions, its limits, its obligations. But the dark current of revenge constantly pulling at the narrative is what many readers will recall the longest after they've put the book down.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.