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The Line That Held Us by David Joy – “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?”

May 8, 2022 5 comments

The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) French title: Ce lien entre nous.

I downloaded The Line That Held Us by David Joy after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar. He made a lot of references to Dwayne Brewster, one of the main characters of this novel, enough to push me to read his book.

The Line That Held Us opens on a fatal mistake.

We’re in Jackson County, in North Carolina. Darl Moody and Carol “Sissy” Brewster are both trespassing on Coon Coward’s land while he’s away for a week. Darl Moody is a hunter and he’s after a deer. Carol Brewster is poaching ginseng, a root that grows in the woods in the Appalachians and can be sold at a hefty price. (It’s like truffles in France, I believe).

Darl mistakes Carol for his prey and accidentally shoots him dead. Instead of going to the police, Darl calls his best friend Calvin and they bury Carol’s body in a makeshift grave on Calvin’s property. They don’t want Carol’s brother Dwayne to know what they did to his brother and Darl wants to escape any legal consequences for his action.

Carol and Dwayne come from a poor and dysfunctional family and the two brothers stick together and are each other’s family. Dwayne is the violent one who protects his soft younger brother.

Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.

Dwayne starts looking for his brother when he goes missing. No one suspected that the old Coon Coward had installed video surveillance on his land. Darl and Calvin are easily recognized.

Dwayne doesn’t believe in the justice of men and despite his extensive Bible reading, he doesn’t believe in the justice of God either. He takes matter into his own hands.

The Line That Held Us is a local and universal tale. It is deeply rooted in Jackson County, in the Appalachians in North Carolina. David Joy lives there and he excels at describing the landscape with love and awe.

An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.

He takes you to his home county and like he said in his interview, the old mountain way-of-life is slowly disappearing. His book is a way to give his people a voice and be a witness of the local ways. His characters are part of this land and they were raised in these customs.

Sixty-three years later, having happened three decades before he was born, Calvin knew the story the same as everyone else to ever come out of Jackson County. Things had a way of never leaving these mountains. Stories took root like everything else. He was a part of one now, part of a story that would never be forgotten, and that made bearing the truth all the more heavy.

People know each other and the family stories are carried on from one generation to the other. The police are people you went to school with. Everyone knows where people work and the places they like to go. It is small town life in secluded places, where solidarity holds hand with nosiness. Darl, Calvin, his girlfriend Angie, Dwayne and Carol all belong to a people living in a tough environment, where people love deeply but not necessarily express their feelings with words.

It’s also a land where people are rather religious. David Joy said he used to go to church three times a week with his parents and the stories from the Bible were an important part of his education. Dwayne Brewster reads the Old Testament on his own and interprets it his own way. He came to the following conclusion:

A God of mercy, they say. I look around this world and I don’t see no mercy. They talk about a God of compassion. I want you to look around. You show me a place where compassion outweighs selfishness. The only thing we might agree on is forgiveness.” Dwayne nodded his head. “I reckon He’d have to be forgiving when He’s done plenty worse Himself. A God of forgiveness. Now that I can see.”

I thought that The Line That Held Us was like a biblical tale, not that I’m overly familiar with them.

Dwayne is the one who forces Darl and then Calvin to face their fear and their selfishness. He challenges them, directly or indirectly. Darl would rather hide Carol’s death than man up and face Dwayne’s reaction and legal consequences. He convinces himself that it’s the best option since his sister relies on his help.

With Calvin, Dwayne acts like the devil or God who tempts or challenges a biblical character and forces them to make a tough choice. Dwayne makes Calvin strip his soul and reveal the raw core of his being. Think of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

The Line That Held Us is constructed like such a story and manages to be a social commentary of life in Jackson County wrapped in a poetical description of the surrounding wilderness.

David Vann binds his books with Greek tragedy tradition. David Joy ties his with Sunday School. In the end, both put their characters in life-changing and character-revealing situations.

We don’t know ourselves fully until we’ve had to answer the question “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?” Most of us hope to never find themselves in a position where they have to answer this question. Meanwhile, Dwayne reminds us:

“What I’m saying is that it’s easy to take the high road so long as there aren’t any stakes. But the minute you’ve got something to lose, a man’ll do all sorts of things.”

We all ought to meditate on that statement, I think. All this makes of Dwayne Brewster an unforgettable character despite his horrible actions. There will be other books by David Joy in my future and I’m looking forward to my visit to Jackson County in August.

Very Highly Recommended.

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