Where All Light Tends to Go

Where All Light Tends to Go

by David Joy

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A Finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel

“Remarkable . . . This isn’t your ordinary coming-of-age novel, but with his bone-cutting insights into these men and the region that bred them, Joy makes it an extraordinarily intimate experience.”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

"Lyrical, propulsive, dark and compelling. Joy knows well the grit and gravel of his world, the soul and blemishes of the place."--Daniel Woodrell

In the country-noir tradition of Winter's Bone meets 'Breaking Bad,' a savage and beautiful story of a young man seeking redemption.

The area surrounding Cashiers, North Carolina, is home to people of all kinds, but the world that Jacob McNeely lives in is crueler than most. His father runs a methodically organized meth ring, with local authorities on the dime to turn a blind eye to his dealings. Having dropped out of high school and cut himself off from his peers, Jacob has been working for this father for years, all on the promise that his payday will come eventually.  The only joy he finds comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl clearly bound for bigger and better things than their hardscrabble town.

Jacob has always been resigned to play the cards that were dealt him, but when a fatal mistake changes everything, he’s faced with a choice: stay and appease his father, or leave the mountains with the girl he loves. In a place where blood is thicker than water and hope takes a back seat to fate, Jacob wonders if he can muster the strength to rise above the only life he’s ever known.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698182585
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 124,716
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Joy’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Drafthorse Literary Journal, Smoky Mountain Living, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pisgah Review, and Flycatcher, and he is the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey. He lives in Webster, North Carolina. Where All Light Tends to Go is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt


I hid the pickup behind a tangled row of pampas grass that had needed burning a good year or so before. The law never liked for folks to climb the water tower, but I hadn’t ever cared much for the law. I was a McNeely and, in this part of Appalachia, that meant something. Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height. Besides, the water tower was the best place to see graduation caps thrown high when seniors wearing black robes and tearful smiles headed out of Walter Middleton School one last time.

Rungs once painted white were chipped and rusted and slumped in the middle from years of being climbed by wide-eyed kids looking to paint their names on the town. Those things that seemed as if they’d last forever never did. I didn’t even make it out of tenth grade, and maybe that’s why I hadn’t felt the need to scale that tower with britches weighed down by spray-paint cans. There was no need to cement my name. A name like Jacob McNeely raised eyebrows and questions. In a town this small, all eyes were prying eyes. I couldn’t show my face, didn’t want the problems and rumors that being down there would bring, but I had to see her leave.

The grate platform circling the water tank had lost all but a few screws and curled up at the edges like a twice-read book. Every step I took shifted metal, but it was a place I’d stood before, a place I’d navigated on every drug I’d ever taken. With only a buzz from my morning smoke lingering, there wasn’t need for worries. I sat beneath green letters dripping a nearly illegible “FUCK U” across the front side of the tank, pulled a soft pack of Winstons from the pocket of my jeans, lit the last cigarette I had, and waited.

The school I’d spent the majority of my life in seemed smaller now, though looking back it had never been big enough. I grew up twenty miles south of Sylva, a town that really wasn’t much of a town at all but the closest thing to one in Jackson County. If you were passing through, you’d miss Sylva if you blinked, and the place where I was from you could overlook with your eyes peeled. Being a small, mountain community that far away, we only had one school. So that meant that kids who grew up in this county would walk into Walter Middleton at five years old and wouldn’t leave until graduation thirteen years down the road. Growing up in it, I never found it strange to share the halls with teens when I was a kid and kids when I was a teen, but looking down on it now, two years after leaving for good, the whole thing was alien.

The white dome roofing the gym looked like a bad egg bobbing in boiling water, the courtyard was lined in uneven passes from a lawnmower, and a painting of the school mascot, centered in the parking lot, looked more like a chupacabra than any bobcat I’d ever seen. To be honest, there wasn’t too much worth remembering from my time there, but still it had accounted for ten of my eighteen years. Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t disappointing. What was disappointing about that school, my life, and this whole fucking place was that I’d let it beat me. I’d let what I was born into control what I’d become. Mama snorted crystal, Daddy sold it to her, and I’d never had the balls to leave. That was my life in a nutshell. I took a drag from my last cigarette and hocked a thick wad of spit over the railing.

I was watching a wake of buzzards whirl down behind a mountain when the side door cracked against the gymnasium brick. One kid tore out in front of the crowd, and even before he jumped onto the hood of his car, I knew him. Blane Cowen was the type to drink a beer and scream wasted. I’d tested him once back in middle school, brought him up here on the water tower to smoke a joint, and when his legs got wobbly and vertigo set in he decided awfully fast he didn’t want to play friends anymore. In a school filled with kids who swiped prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, Blane was the village idiot. But despite all that, I kind of felt sorry for the bastard, standing there, arms raised in the air as he dented in the hood of a beat-up Civic, no one in his class paying him a lick of attention while he howled.

The parking lot that had seemed so desolate just a minute before was crawling now as friends hugged, told promises they’d never be able to keep, and ran off to parents who had no clue of who their children had become. I knew it because I’d grown up with them, all of them, and all of us knew things about one another that we’d never share. Most of us knew things that we didn’t even want to confess to ourselves, so we took those secrets with us like condoms, stuffed in wallets, that would never be used. I wanted to be down there with them, if not as a classmate, then at least as a friend, but none of them needed my baggage.

Not until she took off her cap did I recognize her in the crowd. Maggie Jennings stood there and pulled her hair out of a bun, shook blond curls down across her shoulders, and kicked high heels from her feet. The front of her graduation gown was unzipped, and a white sundress held tight to her body. I could almost make out her laugh in the clamor as her boyfriend, Avery Hooper, picked her up from behind and spun her around wildly. Maggie’s mother hunched with her hands covering her face as if to conceal tears, and Maggie’s father put his arm around his wife’s waist and drew her close. A person who didn’t know any better would have thought them the perfect American family. Live the lie and they’ll believe the lie, but I knew different.

I’d known Maggie my whole life. The house she grew up in was two beats of a wing as the crow flies from my front porch, so there hadn’t been many days of my childhood spent without her by my side. About the first memory I can recall is being five or six with pants rolled up, the two of us digging in the creek for spring lizards. We were tighter than a burl, as Daddy’d say. In a way, I guess, Maggie and me raised each other.

Back before her father found Jesus, he’d run off on a two- or three-week drunk with no one seeing hide nor hair of him till it was over. Her mother worked two jobs to keep food on the table, but that meant there wasn’t a soul watching when Maggie and I’d head into the woods, me talking her into all sorts of shit that most kids wouldn’t have dreamed. I guess we were twelve or so when her father got saved and moved the family off The Creek. Folks said he poured enough white liquor in the West Fork of the Tuckasegee to slosh every speckled trout from Nimblewill to Fontana, but I never figured him much for saving. A drunk’s a drunk just like an addict’s an addict, and there ain’t a God you can pray to who can change a damn bit of it.

But Maggie was different. Even early on I remember being amazed by her. She’d always been something slippery that I never could seem to grasp, something buried deep in her that never let anything outside of herself decide what she would become. I’d always loved that about her. I’d always loved her.

We were in middle school when the tomboy I grew up with started filling out. Having been best friends, when I asked Maggie out in eighth grade, it seemed like that shit they write in movies. We were together for three years, a lifetime it had felt like. What meant the most to me was that Maggie knew where I’d come from, knew what I was being groomed into, and still believed I could make it out. I’d thought my life was chosen, that I didn’t really have a say in the matter, but Maggie dreamed for me. She told me I could be anything I wanted, go any place that looked worth going, and there were times I almost believed her. Folks like me were tied to this place, but Maggie held no restraints. She was out of here from the moment she set her eyes on the distance. If I ever did have a dream, it was that she might take me with her. But dreams were silly for folks like me. There always comes a time when you have to wake up.

I was proud that she was headed to a place I could never go, and I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to text her, “Congrats.”

When Avery let go, Maggie jumped into her father’s arms, bent her legs behind her with bare feet pointed into the sky. Her father buried his head into his daughter’s hair, pretended for a split second that he’d had something to do with how she turned out, then placed her on the ground for her mother to kiss. Maggie stood there for a moment, rocked back and forth before she turned away. She glanced behind her to say something as she ran off to Avery’s truck, but her parents had said their good-byes. In a way, I think they knew she was already gone. They knew it just as much as I did. A girl like that couldn’t stay. Not forever, and certainly not for long.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Where All Light Tends to Go
“Gripping . . . Engaging characters, a well-realized setting, and poetic prose establish Joy as a novelist worth watching.”—Publishers Weekly

Where All Light Tends to Go is lyrical, propulsive, dark and compelling. In this debut novel, David Joy makes it clear that he knows well the grit and gravel of his world, the soul and blemishes of the place. He uses details that put us inside the picture, and lets his narrative move at a graceful but restless pace.”—Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version

“David Joy has written a savage and moving account of a young man’s attempt to transcend his family’s legacy of violence. Where All Light Tends to Go is an outstanding debut and a fine addition to the country noir vein of Southern Literature.”—Ron Rash, PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Serena

Where All Light Tends to Go is deeply rooted in place, written in an assured, authentic voice. David Joy manages to be both lyrical and gritty, loving and horrifyingly violent, funny and grim. His picture of modern Appalachia is rich and evocative, with bold storytelling not often seen in a first novel. This book is an amazing start to a career that could make Joy the Larry Brown of the Appalachians.”—Ace Atkins, New York Times-bestselling author of The Forsaken

“Compelling and authentic . . . a harsh tale of young love’s tender hopes set against the brutal realities of ruined Appalachia. Jacob McNeely’s story is one worth reading.”—Tawni O’Dell, New York Times-bestselling author of Back Roads

“David Joy writes under the auspices of community, heartbreak, and love, and makes use of the warmest color in fiction - gray. What is right and what is wrong and who is to decide? In the North Carolina mountains, these answers don't come easy. Big decisions come with big consequences, and if you second guess, you lose.”—Michael Farris Smith, author of Rivers and The Hands of Strangers

“Running with the dopers, drunks and less fortunate in my youth, those who were doomed by their surroundings, the story that David Joy tells is one of truth, power and circumstance and quite possibly a tour de force in American letters.”—Frank Bill, author of Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook
Where All Light Tends to Go reads like the whiskey-breath of Harry Crews word-drunk on the lyricism of Daniel Woodrell. It's as brutally beautiful as it is heartbreaking.”—Mark Powell, author of The Dark Corner
“David Joy gives us a world that is equal parts graceful beauty and true grit in this poetic and heart-pounding novel.  Where All Light Tends to Go contains those essential elements for a novel that ‘sticks to the ribs’:  complex and memorable characters, a palpable sense of place, and a plot that is driven as much by suspense as lyricism.  You won't be able to put down this profoundly moving and illuminating look into a mysterious and intricate world where the smell of the southern pines mingles with the scent of cooking meth.”—Silas House, author of Clay's Quilt and Eli the Good

“David Joy's Where All Light Tends to Go will be compared to a handful of grit lit masterpieces, but Joy's his own writer.  It's a double page turner—I couldn't stop reading, but I relished each page twice, mesmerized by the language and plot twists. For every scene of evil personified, there's goodness.  For every horrific act of lawless characters, there's the sublime.  I'll remember—and be haunted by—this novel for a long, long time.”—George Singleton, author of Between Wrecks

Reading Group Guide


1. According to David Joy, part of the inspiration for the novel was exploring the idea of manhood. He says: “All young men are faced with discerning what exactly it means to be a man, but, for many, what is illuminated, and even glorified, is volatile.” Do you agree? What does manhood mean for Jacob? What about his father?

2. Though the novel contains much darkness and violence, there are many scenes where humor and tenderness shine through. Which moments in the book did you find the funniest? The most poignant?

3. David Joy brings to the novel a strong sense of place. What role does the setting play in the story?

4. Consider the characters of Jacob’s mother and father. What kind of legacy have they left for Jacob? Is either of them at all sympathetic?

5. Jacob and Maggie have conflicting ideas about the power of personal agency versus the inevitability of fate. Why are their viewpoints so different? Which perspective do you identify with more?

6. Once they rekindle their relationship, it takes quite some time for Maggie and Jacob to be comfortable with each other again and figure out how they want to move forward together. Why, despite all the years they’ve known each other and been close, is this process so difficult? What conflicts have gotten in the way?

7. As the violence continues to escalate, why does Jacob make the choices he does? Are there any alternatives he could pursue?

8. Were you surprised by the ending? Why, or why not?

9. In the book’s last lines, it says that Jacob “finally understood that there’d never been any difference between here or there. 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.” What do you think this means?

10. What is the significance of the title?

11. The author describes the novel as “Appalachian noir.” Does that description resonate with you? What elements does the book share with classic noir stories? Where does it diverge?

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