Skip to main content

When These Mountains Burn

Review

When These Mountains Burn

David Joy earned a place on my must-read list with his debut novel, WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO. He never fails to surpass his previous efforts (which is not an easy feat), and WHEN THESE MOUNTAINS BURN is no exception. This haunting story will sear itself into your memory with each turn of the page.

Joy resides in the deeply rural area of western North Carolina where the book is based and has a keen eye for observing people and places. A massive forest fire that is racing through the surrounding mountains serves as a backdrop, as well as a metaphor, in this tale about the opioid plague that rages --- seemingly unabated --- throughout rural America. No family goes untouched.

"Joy’s plotting is simple and straightforward. Readers can often see, with cringe-inducing clarity, a character’s bad decision coming. It’s the degree of the severity of the consequences that are startling in WHEN THESE MOUNTAINS BURN."

Raymond Mathis, an upright man running downhill toward his 70th year, receives a panicked telephone call from his son Ricky, a child in adult wrappings. Ricky is 41 years old and deep into an addiction that has gotten him into $10,000 worth of serious trouble with his dealer. Raymond, a giant of a man who spent 30 years in the U.S. Forest Service, is still quietly grieving as he adjusts to his status as a widower. Ricky’s two-decade history of addiction has been a constant source of trouble for Raymond, but never more so than now. He bails Ricky out of his immediate predicament, but it only serves as a stopgap measure, which kicks the large can containing his problems down a short and tragic road.

When Ricky’s addiction ends in the only way that it foreseeably can, Raymond makes a fateful decision to take a pound of flesh to replace the troubled one that he has lost. Meanwhile, there are plans afoot from another direction to take down the local drug kingpin who is responsible for supplying the opioid misery to the poverty-stricken area. A driven though frustrated DEA agent patches together a fragile series of bargains and deals to obtain information that will bring him to the local source. His plan ultimately comes to involve Raymond, as well as a hardcore addict who is inspired to take a shot at gaining some form of redemption, however short-lived it may be. The result is bittersweet, especially for Raymond. Regardless of the outcome, he still will be left with his unrecoverable loss.

Joy’s plotting is simple and straightforward. Readers can often see, with cringe-inducing clarity, a character’s bad decision coming. It’s the degree of the severity of the consequences that are startling in WHEN THESE MOUNTAINS BURN. The most memorable element of this terrific work, though, is the development of Joy’s characters, all of whom are honed with a sharpness that cuts with the slightest exposure. This is particularly true of Raymond, who bears his double-barreled grief with the strength of a man who has asked very little of life and received even less. Such would be enough to bring even the most jaded reader to the table, but Joy’s prose, which is shot through with unforgettable turns of phrase and imagery, will have anyone exposed to it rereading this work for years to come.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 20, 2020

When These Mountains Burn
by David Joy

  • Publication Date: August 18, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0525536884
  • ISBN-13: 9780525536888