When These Mountains Burn ~ by David Joy

This is a really, really good book – an excellent book actually.  A powerful book if you read carefully.  I listened to it twice with no Kindle version involved.  The reader, McLeod Andrews,  is that good, too, made for a western North Carolina drawl.  There’s a tight and complex plot with a structure which enhances the pace.  The major themes include change which is pervasive.  What happened to the old communities? Where did all the drugs come from and why? Change  touches all sorts of things – grief is a reaction to change.   And “fire” is a kind of motif – there are many kinds of fire. The many characters are distinctly drawn to emphasize their individuality.  I think the thing is that it’s very contemporary realism in that the very devil is in the devotion given to details.  

When These Mountains Burn 
by David Joy – 2020
Read by McLeod Andrews 7h 22m Rating: 9.5 /A
+  –  literary crime

“When Those Mountains Burn” is called “grit lit” by “Crime Fiction Lover” and that certainly is a good description except grit kind of partially misses the point.  Taking place in Eastern North Carolina, the southern end of Appalachia, it might be called a darker and a 21st Century form of Southern Noir. I could sense, in a way, the spirit of Cormac McCarthy.   

Raymond Mathis is newly retired and widowed three years as well. One night he’s sitting on the porch when he gets a phone call from his 40-something year-old heroin addicted son, Ricky.  Raymond hears his son tell him that someone is out to kill him because of a $10,000 debt. The caller wants the money or Ricky dies. Ray grabs the last of his cash and his gun and he sets off in his truck to find the meeting place where he is able to negotiate Ricky’s release although Ray lost out in the deal because Ricky will be back to buy again.  

Meanwhile another junkie named Denny Rattler, a Cherokee Indian and an addict, is out burgling houses while the residents are at a funeral. He tries to keep control of his thieving and his addiction but he knows better. He’s going downhill. 

There are lots of characters, but the action really revolves around these two sympathetic characters, Ray and Denny, who find themselves rather out of their depth. 

A small group of trailers known as the “Outlet Mall” is where a lot of the various drug sales take place. In one of them Jonah Rathbone is the main man and Denny trades his stolen loot for money and drugs, maybe a woman.  Denny had a disabling work accident sending him to stealing salable items in the realms of the dealers. 

Rodriguez is a DEA agent who has a unique way of going undercover.  And there are other law enforcement types from the reservation police to the sheriff’s department to the FBI.  The various agencies are waiting until they can get to a higher level of drug sellers. 

 Ricky gets beat up, is discharged from the hospital, screws up again by stealing the pills his dad, Ray is saving for him and finally gets kicked out of the house – stark naked.   Ray tells Ricky that was the last bit of money he had stashed away.  This is it.  No more savings. Nothing left to give.  That’s true. Ray is so overcome with guilt, anger, shame that he might catch “afire.”  
The old family doctor tells Ray that Ricky is a stone-cold addict and until he wants to get clean he won’t. 

So there’s more trouble which leads to even more trouble with Denny in the middle of it creating his own difficulties while at the same time Ray is taking matters into his own hands.  

It does get complex – but it’s worth every word of it – twice. 

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