Where All Light Tends To Go

As many of you know, I am a proud Appalachian man with a serious love of literature and of my region. I try, on occasion, to immerse myself in regional pieces, and see my culture from the eyes of other local authors. I recently had the pleasure of diving into the incredible novel “Where All Light Tends To Go,” by David Joy. This amazing piece of Appalachian Literature, or Appalachian Noir as Joy considers it, explores the life of Jacob McNeely, the son of a drug addict and what passes for a drug kingpin in the small mountain town.

I’ve read several Appalachian works, and know several regional authors, and this tale stands at the pinnacle of Appalachian literature for me. I immediately felt drawn in by Jacob’s story. He is an outcast in his life, largely forgotten by a mother who spends most of her time riding her current high or pursuing the next one, and pushed aside by a father who finds him to be weak and useless. A dropout, Jacob can’t even rely on his peers for comfort.

Being from a small town myself, I related to Jacob’s plight as a young Applachian man, living in a town where opportunities aren’t exactly aplenty. Jacob feels he is limited in many ways, not the least being that, as a McNeely, he is almost instantly branded a failure. He talks several times throughout the first person narrative of being trash, nothing but trash, pure McNeely trash. Our main character perhaps it explains it best by saying;

“A name like Jacob McNeely raised eyebrows and questions. In a town this small all eyes were prying eyes.”

Joy’s writing explores the depth of the Appalachian region, while tugging the heart strings in an attempt to show the truth of the struggle some feel growing up in these beautiful mountains. The McNeelys are a family that has been condemned by their choices, their actions, and the unfortunate judgement of others. Jacob, who some say has a chance to become more, struggles throughout the entire book with the penalties associated with being a McNeely and the decisions he makes because of it.

An underlying, but interesting element of the text is the repeated conflict Jacob has with religion. From his early childhood Jacob was encouraged to go to church, his mother and grandfather religious individuals for a time. His father, whom he ends up living with, however, is not the religious type. Jacob says more than once that he doesn’t believe in God, but follows that up by saying that God doesn’t answer McNeely prayers. I found this element to be very interesting, as most Appalachian literature brings religion into the text by presenting us with the heavily (if not overly) religious individuals who do nothing but judge others based on their beliefs. We get none of that from Jacob.

Jacob’s relationship with the woman he loves, his childhood best friend, Maggie, is nothing short of remarkable. We enter Jacob’s life to see him watching Maggie graduate high school (from a distance, granted), and throughout his story he is insistent that Maggie has everything it takes to get be more, to escape their small town prison and do incredible things. In essence, Jacob puts everything into Maggie that he refuses to give to himself. She becomes romanticized and placed on a pedestal that I never could quite tell if she deserves.

I think the most heart-wrenching part of Jacob’s life is the strained relationship he has with his father. Charles McNeely is, in essence, the worst kind of person. A drug pushing, abusive, womanizing fiend with no regard for life, he neglects his child and causes pain to everyone he knows. Between his father’s treatment of him, his mother’s abandonment, and his own inability to break free of the burdens placed on him, Jacob is haunted by the pain of a broken life. His pain bleeds from the pages in places, particularly during one of the hardest hitting lines in the text, which has Jacob mentioning how funny it is that it only takes one person taking the time to show you they care for the bad things in life to not seem so bad anymore.

I have no shame in admitting that I didn’t have any idea how this book would end, but, after reading it, I don’t think any other ending would have sufficed. Although not bogged down with the supernatural, or with the inescapable horror I usually seek out, this text has quickly risen to my top ten books right now. Jacob’s journey is not necessarily one for the faint of heart, but I feel like this is a book most anyone can enjoy. Fans of Appalachian literature in particular will love this representation of the difficulties of life in a small North Carolina town.

I’m the kind of reader who loves marking passages that I enjoy so I can go back and look at them later and explore their meaning and depth. Usually I try to do this with sticky tabs that I can slap on the page right beside of my preferred quote. I have no shame admitting that I used an entire stack of sticky notes for this novel, as the featured image above shows. I will absolutely be seeking out more of Joy’s writing in the near future, and will be keeping my eyes open for a chance to meet this fantastic author and delve into his creative genius. If any of you pick up this masterpiece, I would love to know what you think. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or send me a message. As always, if you have any suggestions for a future review, or even just a book recommendation feel free to let me know!

I must leave you with this final line, that I am convinced will go down in history right alongside “So we beat on…” Though it gives nothing away, I have to admit it literally gave me chills. It is only a part of the power this text holds, and I’m sure everyone will love it.

“Only the middle ground of this wicked world mattered, the vast gap that stretched between, and those who were born with enough grit to brave it.”

The Sublime Nature of Grief

Since the loss of my grandmother my life has been full of a lot of conflicting emotions. I’ve dealt with the loss as best I can, trying hard to honor her memory and move forward. One thing that is always painfully obvious when we lose someone close to us is that everyone deals with loss in their own way. What works for one person may not work for another, and one loss may not affect us the same as another. No matter how you handle the situation, sooner or later you will come to a time when you have to not only face the loss, but yourself.

This week I took some time on a particularly hard day and tried to do that. In an attempt to connect with myself, God, nature, and my grandmother I went to a local dam and nature area for some peace and quiet. If you’re unfamiliar with the summer season in the Appalachian mountains, we often have very hot days in the month of August. A number of summer afternoons often see some good thunderstorms or at least a nice passing shower or two. This, of course, can lead to amazingly beautiful foggy conditions. So much so that there is an old wives’ tale my grandmother used to remind me of often; if you count the foggy mornings in August that’s the amount of big snow events you’ll have that winter.

One of my favorite things in life is to find myself in the midst of a heavy fog, pondering the sublime mystery of the shrouded world around me. Is anyone else in the fog? Am I completely and utterly alone? What do the shadowy figures in the thick cloud represent? The feeling of floating in a cloud, the world around me oblivious of my own ideas and presence is marvelous. One of the best moments of my life has been in conditions like this. To say it has a special place in my heart and soul is a definite understatement.

When I arrived at my destination that evening, I had no idea the fantastic occurrence that awaited me. As soon as I rounded a curve in the road and my eyes fell on the river I was greeted with an amazingly thick, ghostly fog floating about a foot above the water. It snaked across the surface of the river like a living, breathing cloud. It rolled and swirled with the breeze, twisting like the spirit of the river itself. After a quick visit to top of the dam, I returned to the riverside and crossed a bridge to an island in the river, an island surrounded by fog.

I found a bench in the midst of this beauty and sat by the riverside, letting the sublime consume me. I communed with nature, God, my grandmother, and myself. I spent probably just under an hour there by the riverside, fog rising and rolling around me, taking photos and trying to find relief from my own strained internal presence. By the time I was ready to leave the fog had risen higher and was rolling over the top of the bridge that was my pathway.

Crossing this bridge, I was able to stand in the middle of the fog and feel the cool moisture settle on my skin. I breathed in the earthy mist and watched the world around me become veiled and reemerge anew over and over as the cloud rolled by. A sense of peace settled on me as this happened, bringing me some relief and allowing me to just enjoy the cool evening. It was a superb experience, and one that I won’t soon forget.

Before the loss of my grandmother, it had been years since I lost someone close to me. I haven’t dealt with loss in a way that other people do, depression and stress affecting me in a serious way. Because of this I feel like being able to express those issues and have experiences like I had this week are very important. If it has taught me anything it is that we all must find what works for us. Avoiding the mourning process and not allowing ourselves to grieve the way we need to is not helpful. It isn’t healthy. One thing that we have to admit and be aware of is that we may sometimes need more time than others to get over a loss. We may need time alone, or time with others, or even a mix. Whatever it is that you need in order to cope, you have to figure it out.

Embrace yourself, the world around you, and whatever helps make you more you. The things that bring you back to feeling like yourself are the things you need to cope with the loss. Don’t allow anyone, especially yourself, keep you from that healing magic. It can truly be life-changing. Honestly, it can be the difference between your own life and death.

Reach out to someone. Never be ashamed of your feelings, your hardships, your needs. Find the relief you need and make sure you are getting enough of whatever it is to help you return to the you you want to be. Accept yourself, accept your loss, but don’t let the grief and mourning consume you. Life can go on, if you find out how to let it. Happiness can return. Even if it’s just one step at a time.

Although I will never truly be over the loss of my grandmother, I now have an idea of what I can do to help me cope when things get tough. I will do what I can to make sure I am allowing myself the proper time and space to be able to let myself, and my grandmother’s memory, continue on.

If you are mourning, grieving, or otherwise in any emotional need, reach out to someone. I’d be more than happy to listen to anything you need. Find your method and make sure you’re returning your soul to its necessary health.