An endless story of violence and despair

A review of David Joy's “The Weight of this World”


It’s still a common perception that the American Wild West was littered with danger and violence but it has never quite held up to Appalachian reality. With its historic blood feuds, lover quarrels, and outlaw culture, the stories wrap tightly around fatalism and despair. One only needs to listen to a tune like “Little Glass of Wine” by The Stanley Brothers to see how quickly love and optimism turns to heartbreak then tragedy. David Joy magically captures the modern-day story of harrowing restlessness in his book, “The Weight of this World.”

From the opening page, Joy draws the reader into a broken nightmare in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. After all, the first sentence of the novel is, “Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard ‘I love you.’” McCall’s tragic past, where his father kills his mother and then turns the gun on himself, is intersected with another deeply troubled soul in Thad Broom. McCall unites with Broom to find a place to live since becoming an orphan. Broom’s mother April and stepfather move them out to a trailer. Broom’s relationship with his own mother is fractured since he is conceived out of a violent rape.

Broom comes back from serving in Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and a bad back. He reunites with McCall, who has basically been working various sorts of construction jobs that has been fledgling since the housing bubble implosion. He’s mostly left to stripping copper from homes for income. His dream, along with April’s too, is to save up enough to get out of the bleak circumstances that have pervaded their lives. Just the thought of moving to Asheville for McCall is more than enough distance to leave the past behind.

Joy is skilled at capturing the discontent of many left behind by a changing economy, especially the white working class whose plight has largely been glossed over by the media and government. “[H]e’d eaten himself into a caricature of the war on poverty” is one of many masterful turn of phrases by the author in this book.

When the two visit Wayne Bryson, a drug dealer, the story launches more into an escalating buildup towards a meth-fueled rage. Playing around, Bryson accidently blows his head off with a gun he believes is unloaded. Broom and McCall see their opportunity to unload Bryson’s drugs, making a handsome profit, and bringing in money they have never encountered in their life. For McCall, it’s their ticket out, drugs are no longer just a temporary escape from their circumstances but a means to an end. But largely because of Broom, the story becomes much more violent and complicated.

Joy builds tremendous suspense in his novel and another strength of his writing style is that while this book is filled with violence begetting more violence, it’s all very much believable. It’s a haunting look at the underbelly of some mountain Appalachian lifestyles, that, despite technological advancement and wealth creation, remains hardened, lonesome, and carved out from larger society still. There is a fatalism and darkness that draws us in, in part, because we all long for a better world and are expectant for something better out of life. But it’s not always to be, and those stories must be told, too.

The author weaves in the timeless significance that there is power in blood and redemption. They are ancient truths, but for some of the characters depicted by Joy, that peace is not found realized or found on this side of Creation.

While not a regular reader of fiction, I was thoroughly impressed with Joy’s story and especially the ending. This is an excellent addition to the great Southern storytelling tradition. Joy powerfully depicts the cyclical nature of violence and despair that often curses large elements of Appalachia. But this story and heartache is familiar to all readers, and all who live under a fallen world that still groans out from the pain of its limitations and our very finite existence.


Please let us know how we are doing.

Fill out my online form.