Toeing the Line With David Joy
David Joy’s third novel, The Line That Held Us, explores the brutal ripple effect of decision making, especially when it comes to those you love the most.
The Line That Held Us is not for the faint of heart. While selfless sibling love is at the core of the novel, it is surrounded by tragedy, both in the details of the present action and the past.
When Darl Moody sets out to poach a deer outside the hunting season, his world crashes down around him the moment he accidentally shoots a man—Sissy Brewer. Desperate to hide the body, Darl enlists his best friend Calvin Hooper, who reluctantly agrees to assist. It isn’t long until Sissy’s brother, Dwayne, a man notorious for his violent nature, finds out, which sends him barreling down a path of revenge. The Line That Held Us ultimately leaves both its characters and its readers questioning what you would do for those you love the most.
I had a chance to interview Appalachian author David Joy to discuss The Line That Held Us and his thoughts on creating strong female characters, balancing different points of view, gun control and Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South.
Elise Demeter: The Line That Held Us demonstrates a neat balance between being character-centric, but simultaneously being strongly driven by plot. There are three main perspectives in the novel—Darl Moody’s, Dwayne Brewer’s and Calvin Hooper’s—and later we’re introduced to the point of view of Calvin’s girlfriend, Angie Moss. A good chunk of the book is carried by male voices, to the degree that it feels like some women are still bound to “that old-fashioned idea that women were wives and mothers” (Chapter 8) that the town is trying to move away from. How do you feel The Line That Held Us reflects female agency?
David Joy: I think most people who are familiar with my work would argue that the female characters in every novel I’ve written are the ones who have the capacity to rise above the androcentric world around them. If anything, it’s the men who lack agency. They’re the ones who time and time again find themselves trapped within traditional masculine expectations.
The line you’re quoting from Chapter 8 was that mountain culture was changing as far as its cultural expectations of women, but that plenty of people still held to “that old-fashioned idea that women were wives and mothers.” That’s very much true. Culturally, these mountains, and rural places in general, are less progressive. But that sentence is ultimately setting up the next line, which is Angie’s surprise early on in her and Calvin’s relationship that Calvin is supportive of her going back to school. In her mind, he was a good ol’ boy who might’ve bought into those old notions of feminine and masculine roles, but he didn’t …
I think the other female characters carry that same strength. There’s Darl Moody’s sister, Marla, who’s working multiple jobs with a passel of kids because her husband, a former long-haul driver, lost his CDLs to disability. She’s very much what’s keeping that family afloat. There’s Darl Moody’s mother, who has lost damn near everything, and she’s somehow still able to hold it together. If there’s a quote to be pulled from the novel regarding mountain women, it’s these lines, when Calvin is acknowledging Mrs. Moody’s strength: “For as tough as the men were in these mountains, the women had always been stone. They were used to loss, accustomed to never having enough. They were fit for the harshness of this world. Calvin could feel all of that in her right then and he was almost jealous of her for that.”
ED: We’re given glimpses of Dwayne and his brother Carol “Sissy” Brewer’s life before their father’s death. We know that they were abused and that, perhaps as a byproduct of this violence, Dwayne has come to know love only for Sissy. What message are you trying to deliver about the impact of family violence and its echo into future generations? Is Dwayne’s behavior simply a consequence of the world he was raised in or would he have been such a complex character had he been surrounded by love?
DJ: There’s a cyclic nature to violence, the same as there is to addiction. And that’s not to say that those cycles can’t be broken. But that is to say that large percentages of the abused go on to become abusers, and that large percentages of those who commit violent crimes have a history of being exposed to violence themselves. I don’t look at things as consequences necessarily, as in this happened, and because this happened this is the result. That seems too black and white. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about why people do the things they do, and with Dwayne, it was less thinking about his violence and his brutality, and more of me thinking about his unfathomable love for his brother and his incredible disappointment in his inability to protect him. When I started thinking about what could make a man love a sibling that much, what could make him feel so responsible as a protector, that was the backstory that developed. I just thought about all these stories I hear of people who grew up in abusive households, and these stories of older siblings doing everything they could to shelter their brothers and sisters from the violence. That’s as selfless a love as I can imagine.
ED: The first time we meet Dwayne, he is set up as an unlikable hero: he’s tormenting a bully, but it’s clear that he has a strong moral code. While his actions are incredibly questionable, the reader almost wants to root for him. That moral code sticks with him down the line, but he quickly becomes less of a hero and more of a complicated, dislikable villain. Can you talk about your relationship with writing Dwayne specifically? Is it draining to write such an intense character, and if so, how do you manage that emotional pull?
DJ: As a writer, and a reader for that matter, I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in whether a character is likable. I’m interested in ambiguity. I’m interested in that washing back and forth. I think one of the scariest things that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make perfect sense. When, as a reader, you find yourself nodding your head.
There’s this great moment in Larry Brown’s novel Father and Son when one of the main characters, Glen, catches this giant fish that everyone had been trying to catch for years. Glen is a bad dude. He’s come out of prison for killing someone. He’s raped at least one woman that we know of. Anyways, he catches this huge fish and he has this moment where he could take it to town and show it off and for once in his life be a hero. Instead, he turns it loose. When they ask him why, the line is something like, “Because that fish never done nothing to me.” Tom Franklin asked Larry about that scene once, and he said Larry told him that even the worst people had moments of humanity. I think that’s absolutely right, and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. That’s what McCarthy was doing with that scene in Child of God when Lester Ballard is at the fair. The guy who runs the shooting gallery is trying to screw Lester over by giving him a rifle with bent sights, and somehow Lester’s still able to win. A reader can’t help but pull for someone in a moment like that, even if they can’t identify with anything else. We’ve all had someone try to pull one over on us. We know what that feels like.
So with Dwayne Brewer, I wanted his logic to make sense. I wanted readers to see him doing incredibly horrific things and somehow feel empathy toward those actions. He’s some sort of balance between instinct and reason, between what we feel in our guts and what we think in our heads. At times, we all wash back and forth between those places and that’s part of why characters like that resonate with us. I think he might be the character I’m most proud of. If nothing else, he’s unforgettable.
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.” – Chapter 15
ED: To return to the idea of character perspectives: I’m always curious about how authors balance different points of view. Were you conscious of the way language worked when you were writing one chapter versus another? Did Darl’s chapters feel tonally different for you than, say, Calvin’s?
DJ: Once you’ve spent that much time with characters in your head, and you’ve gotten to know them intimately, a writer can’t help but hear the voices tonally. I don’t know if that’s conscious or just natural. The conscious part comes in the revision. With a book that shifts perspective back and forth like this, I go back and edit chapters based on a character, so I’ll read and edit all of Darl’s chapters together, then all of Angie’s, Calvin’s, etc. I think you do that to try and ensure the voice holds true, that there’s consistency.
ED: Some of the choices you made as far as pivotal moments and point of view switches came as a surprise. How did you decide which characters needed their own perspective, rather than to share page-space with others?
DJ: Maybe that just boils down to how I view narrative in general, in that I believe the only necessity is movement. Character becomes irrelevant. A narrative needs to be fluid. It needs to be able to hit rock, change direction and continue downstream. That’s the way life is. One person, one event, is never the whole picture. So with Darl, the story obviously started with him. It was very much his action that tipped over the first domino. The heart of the story was watching the rest of the dominoes collapse.
ED: To me, one of the greatest through-lines between each perspective was that every character had absolutely gorgeous moments of revelation. For example: “Empathy’s not standing over a hole looking down and saying you understand. Empathy is having been in that hole yourself” (Chapter 2, Dwayne); “Confessing what he’d done wasn’t just a matter of giving away his own life, it was bigger than that. It was sacrificing everyone he loved” (Chapter 6, Darl); “The thing about this old world was that nothing had come along yet that could slow or stop its turning” (Chapter 20, Calvin). Why did you decide that each character needed to have that higher level of understanding?
DJ: That’s all life is, right? Trying to make sense of things. Trying to figure out why things happen. Trying to figure out why we’re here, what’s important to us. I think everyone, for the most part, is trying to answer those same questions. A lot of times, those revelatory moments seem to happen amidst tragedy. A lot of times, it takes us being broken to figure out how we put ourselves back together. With this book, the big question that the entire narrative narrows down to is what Dwayne asks Calvin toward the end of the novel. He asks, “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that, there is nothing.” At its heart, that’s what this book’s about.
ED: I would like to talk about the way time functions in The Line That Held Us. From the start of the novel to its end, roughly five weeks pass. Being so caught up in the action of the narrative, I wouldn’t have realized how many days had lapsed if it wasn’t for Dwayne’s constant awareness of the time that had passed since he lost Sissy. When you were writing, was time something you were actively aware of? Did earlier drafts see time passing more slowly, or has the novel always taken shape in these beats? In a similar vein, how does your revision process help you fine-tune the flow of the story you want to tell?
DJ: I had to be conscious of time, particularly with Dwayne’s chapters, in that there is quite literally a body decomposing in the background. That’s a very specific process, and so to portray that with any sort of accuracy required a steadfast and unwavering adherence to that timeline. So, yes, I was very aware of how much time had passed when I was writing.
As far as revision, I think that’s what I enjoy most. I’ve probably said this a hundred times by now, but it still holds water, and that’s that when I was growing up, my mother was a potter, and there’s something about the writing process that’s always seemed similar. The first draft has just always felt like digging clay. It’s hard work. It’s tiring. A lot of times, it’s just not fun. Revision, on the other hand, is when you’re back in the studio and you’ve got the clay on the wheel. You get to start throwing mud, and that’s fun. That’s when you’ve really got the chance to make something, to shape something raw into something beautiful. That’s the most enjoyable part of the process. Of course, it can all still fall apart at any moment, but that’s part of the fun as well, just the absolute fragility of it all.
ED: Animals are heavily significant in this book: they’re the motivation for Darl to go into Coon Coward’s woods in the first place; Dwayne recounts taking his brother hunting; they appear like minor characters throughout individual chapters (crows, deer, rats and so on); characters stalk and hunt other characters in predatory ways. Is there a certain relationship you were trying to establish between mankind and wildlife?
DJ: That’s indicative of where I live and the people and place I’m writing about. There’s still a very deep connection to the land here, an intimate relationship with the natural world. I live on a 40-acre cattle farm, and most days I see foxes and coyotes and groundhogs and skunks and possums and everything else running the pasture. This past weekend, my girlfriend was sitting at a friend of ours’ house, and she was out on the porch, and she sent me a picture of two does bedding down in the field. The other day I was driving, and I saw an old man parked on the side of the road, and he was watching something out the window, and when I slowed down and looked, he was fixated on a bunch of turkeys scratching around the churchyard. People still hunt and fish here, raise livestock. That’s just the reality of the place.
ED: I’ve also noticed that you’ve been writing actively in support of gun rights reform. With guns being actively involved in The Line That Held Us, can you speak to the relationship between your beliefs and your work?
DJ: I’ve written actively in support of gun reform. I think you’re probably referring to the essay I wrote for New York Times Magazine a while back, but the crux of that essay was me, as a lifetime gun owner, wholeheartedly believing that this country needs sensible gun reform in regards to what types of weapons an individual can legally own and the process by which those weapons are purchased. That essay was about someone who grew up surrounded by firearms acknowledging the cultural shift that has taken place over the last 20 years, a largely post-9/11 devolution rooted in xenophobia wherein gun culture was militarized and fetishized. The gun culture that I grew up with is gone and I don’t identify with what it’s become.
If you’re asking why I write about all of these things, it’s because I can’t imagine any contemporary American being able to write a story that doesn’t involve violence, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and a perversion of faith. If those things don’t exist in the fiction then the fiction’s not a reflection of the real world.
ED: The further into The Line That Held Us I got, the clearer it became that Dwayne had some sort of bizarre God-complex. His obsession with religion doesn’t surface until later in the novel: in Chapter 19, while reading the Bible, he suggests that Sissy was “like Jesus”; in Chapter 26, he tells Calvin that he’s “spit in the face of God”; and in Chapter 39, he asks Calvin, “What if I told you I was a prophet?” His delusions compound themselves rapidly the more Dwayne unwinds. What point are you trying to make about the relationship between God and man, particularly violent or traumatized men?
DJ: Flannery O’Connor had that wonderful line that “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” I think that Dwayne is very much a product of that. Maybe more than anything else, I was playing around with the idea of how easily faith can be perverted. On the surface, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book more violent than The Holy Bible. It’s easy to understand how that book can be distorted, how that book is distorted. We live in a country where elected officials who identify themselves as Christians have used Bible verses to justify child molestation. We live in a time when a book like The Faith of Donald J. Trump sells a million copies, arguing that our president’s sexual exploits were a misguided quest for God. The line between the sacred and profane no longer exists. I think maybe Dwayne was trying to draw it back. When Dwayne asks, “What if I told you I was a prophet?” I don’t think that’s delusion. He’s quite literally teaching Calvin the one thing that matters most. He’s showing him that outside of recognizing those you love, those for whom you are willing to lay down your life, this world means nothing. In that way, The Holy Bible and this novel are telling the same story. They’re both stories of selfless love.
The Line That Held Us is one of our 2018 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.