Archived Reading Room

First novel by local writer strikes a chord

bookEighteen-year-old Jacob McNeely, a shy high school dropout from Walter Middleton High School in Jackson County, North Carolina, seems resigned to a bleak future: As the son of Charlie McNeely, the biggest drug dealer in Cashiers Valley (and Laura, a mother who is a hopeless crack addict), his options are woefully limited. He can continue to endure his father’s contempt and abuse as he performs menial (drug-related) tasks, or he can venture into the world outside the mountains ... a prospect for which he has no training or aptitude. (At one point, Jacob wryly notes that he could count the times that his father had been proud of him on one hand, even if he had lost two or three fingers in a saw mill accident.)

As time passes, Jacob realizes that he has not only become accustomed to his father’s criminal activities, but he has become an active participant in the distribution of drugs. He has also moved beyond smoking pot and occasionally experiments with a variety of “recreational drugs.” When a crack addict named Robbie Douglas becomes a threat to the McNeely drug operation (which operates under the guise of a garage where Jacob is a mechanic), Jacob becomes an unwilling participant in Douglas’ torture and possible murder. Sometimes, when Jacob considers his growing involvement in criminal activities, he concludes that for many of his peers, a life of crime is a kind of “heredity,” in which the moonshiners of the past become the drug dealers of the future. In other words, he is a victim of his genes.

However, amid all of this bleakness and squalor, Jacob has found one singular, positive experience. Jacob has fallen in love with Maggie Jennings, a “town girl” who belongs to a different world: She is middle-class, affluent and ambitious; she also sees something in Jacob that she calls good and fine ... something no one else has seen. Jacob comes to perceive Maggie as a means of escaping from the hardscrabble existence in which he is trapped. 

However, much of their relationship is undermined by Jacob’s belief that if he truly loves Maggie, he will end their relationship (she is going to college and he is doomed to McNeely’s garage). However, his attitude changes when Maggie’s plans to go to college are destroyed by her father’s financial problems. Jacob decides to “finance” Maggie’s future with his own ill-gotten funds and perhaps go with her.

As Jacob goes about his daily life, watching his father wheel and deal with the vagaries of his criminal operation, the boy comes to realize a bitter truth: greed for money and power has a way of outweighing morality. Everywhere he looks, he sees undeniable evidence: the local sheriff is “an old friend” of Charlie’s and always warns the drug dealer when troubles develop. If problems are serious enough to warrant legal assistance, Jacob learns that his father has bought and paid for the services of Jackson County’s most powerful, shrewd and corrupt lawyer named Queen, a man that Jacob describes as “a vole-faced peckerwood” who was “born with 14 rattlers and a button, the sneakiest son of a bitch to ever come off Caney Fork.” (Author David Joy’s scathing description of Queen is especially noteworthy, and includes mention of the lawyer’s penchant for expensive status symbols: Cadillacs, whiskey and Jos. A. Banks suits).

Since Jacob is the son of the notorious Charlie McNeely, he is frequently harassed by the local highway patrol in the region and is frequently cited for minor traffic violations. Once more, the author of Where All Light Tends to Go delivers a satirical sketch of a posturing highway patrolman and /or deputy that is a masterpiece of caustic wit, including the officer’s “theatrical gestures” such as the donning of sun glasses, “re situating” his gun belt and then, giving his stern orders the driver to “remove his driver’s license” — dramatic pause — ”slowly.” 

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However, beneath the caustic wit, there is a growing sense of danger. As Jacob drives aimlessly from Cashiers to Cullowhee, listening to Townes Van Zandt on his tape deck, he casually notes evidence of corruption. The owner of a local business, the Moonshine Mini Mart, is running a “shake and bake lab” right beneath the cash register.” The spread of covert greed and drug trafficking has become commonplace and casual.

As Jacob’s involvement in his father’s business increases, so does his enmity for his father. When Robbie Douglas turns up alive but unconscious in a nearby hospital, Jacob is forced to agree to an unholy alliance: Charlie will give his son the money he so desperately needs to provide for Maggie’s education if Jacob makes certain that Robbie never regains consciousness. Then, Charlie brutally murders the Cabe brothers, two drug addicts who could testify against him. He then gives Jacob the job of disposing of their bodies. In a bizarre and memorable scene, Jacob ferries the Cabe brothers in their truck into the middle of Glenville Lake and launches them into the dark waters where he suspects that they will join other luckless victims who have witnessed something that must never be revealed.

When Laura McNeely commits suicide, her self-destructive act seems to act as a catalyst. Suddenly, Jacob views his life with a painful clarity. The boy finds his mother’s body and realizes that at the moment she had pulled the trigger of a gun belonging to his father, she had been looking at a faded painting of an old Indian on the wall.

He must have been one of those old west Indians ... He sat tall on the back of one of those spotted Appaloosa horses. ... The old Indian was just staring out into the open plans, some place far off that would  have been hell to get to.

To the grief-stricken boy, it seems that the old Indian is looking for “the place where all light tends to go.” It reminds him of the fierce light he had seen in the eyes of a dying wild hog. For Jacob, the yearning look on the old Indian’s countenance and the expression on his mother’s dead face were one and the same. The place where the light gathers was as close to God as Jacob cold imagine. 

Jacob’s realizations come hard and fast now. He remembers his father’s penchant of leaving a small Bible on the bodies of those he had killed. Why? Was it a way of marking his victims? When Jacob returns to the garage to get the money for Maggie’s education, he discovers that it is gone and his father has been murdered. Then, there is the man named Rogers, a man that Jacob had trusted ... a man that had his own reasons to hate Charlie ... has Jacob been betrayed again? Even now, he hears his executioners outside. Should he go to meet them?

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