The Weight of this World by David Joy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (March 2017)
In his astounding sophomore novel, The Weight of This World, David Joy once again explores the rough reality of life in the North Carolina mountains. Rather than center blame for his characters’ hardships on the usual suspects—environment, isolation, lack of opportunity—he focuses squarely on their own weaknesses; in particular, their inability to make good decisions.
We all have that one friend, the guy or gal with a self-destructive streak a mile wide, the one who comes to us seeking counsel we know he or she won’t heed. For Aiden, that friend is Thad. The two have been all but inseparable since childhood, a loyalty that’s not necessarily healthy for either man, but is basically all they have. The two go on days-long drug benders together, sessions that typically end with Aiden feeling some remorse about his directionless life, and with Thad looking restlessly for the next source of distraction.
The two are seeking some pharmaceutical fuel one day when their dealer accidentally kills himself right in front of them. As bad as the dealer’s decision to put a loaded gun to his head was, it almost pales in comparison to the cavalcade of bad decisions both Aiden and Thad make in the hours that follow. The first domino is their decision to go back to the house and raid it for whatever money, drugs or guns may still be there. That goes reasonably well, but it leads into a downward spiral that neither man may be able to escape.
It may sound like Joy has created two entirely unsympathetic characters, but that’s far from the case. People and their lives are complex, and Aiden and Thad are no different. Joy helps us see that, even when a better decision seems obvious, there may be circumstances that prevent people from making the right choice.
Also in the mix is April, Thad’s mother and Aiden’s lover. If you figure that this arrangement is a recipe for disaster, you might be surprised; it’s a complication, for sure, but April serves as an anchor of sorts for Aiden, and Thad seems to have reached a tenuous peace with their relationship. But April is looking for a way out, and she knows the only way to truly escape her life’s trajectory is to cut every tie—including the one to Aiden.
What we have here is three intertwined people, right at the point in their lives where they are beginning to unravel. It’s an enthralling read, brutal and beautiful all at the same time. Joy may focus on difficult people in difficult circumstances, but his prose is a pleasure to read. He writes with an honesty that’s tough to face and impossible to look away from. I’m looking forward to reading along as he continues to refine his voice in the years and novels ahead.