Stories about drug addiction and the emotional toll it exacts on both the addict and their family members are inherently tragic. But in the hands of a master storyteller, they can be unforgettably powerful as well. Such is the case with David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn.
Joy follows up his Southern Book Prize-winning novel, The Line That Held Us, with a tale fraught with brutal consequences and heart-wrenching loss. All the stages of grief are given ample space here: shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Set against the backdrop of the 2016 forest fire in the North Carolina foothills, the novel swiftly introduces widower Raymond Mathis, whose 40-something son, Ricky, owes $10,000 to his drug dealer. If Raymond doesn’t cover his son’s debts, he’ll have to bury Ricky instead. Raymond ultimately gives in, makes the trade and brings Ricky home, only for Ricky to steal all the painkillers in the house to support his habit. At his wit’s end, Raymond boots Ricky out, and this is the last time he sees his son alive.
At the same time, junkie Denny Rattler, a Cherokee man who is with Ricky when he dies, is roped into doing the bidding of Ricky’s drug dealer. Raymond and Denny are on a collision course with far-reaching ramifications, but with a brutal drug kingpin and the Drug Enforcement Agency ramping up the pressure, finding a way out is more difficult than either Raymond or Denny could have thought.
The novel moves at a brisk pace as it alternates points of view between Raymond and Denny. But what stands out here isn’t the story—harrowing though it is, this tale has been told before—but rather Joy’s unflinching and gritty depiction of his fully realized characters, from their raw loss to their helplessness and rage to their final acceptance. Joy has thoroughly captured their experiences in vivid, memorable prose that burns to be read.