March 3, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
David Joy's novel Where All Light Tends to Go has brought him numerous comparisons to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews, and is an impressively dark and lyrical debut.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Readers of Southern grit lit in the tradition of Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews will enjoy this fast-paced debut thriller. Fans of Ron Rash's novels will appreciate the intricate plot and Joy's establishment of a strong sense of place in his depiction of rural Appalachia."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Where All Light Tends to Go is a novel that in a lot of ways was born out of music. I saw the narrator, Jacob McNeely, before I heard him. He was eighteen in the story, but when I first saw him he was younger. His daddy had taken him hog hunting. A pack of walker hounds bayed the pig in a dried creek bed, and only a child, Jacob stabbed that pig just like he was told. I saw his reflection in the fading light of the pig's eyes. I recognized what he discovered: that one animal is not that different from another. But when I heard Jacob McNeely, when his voice woke me up out of a dream, there was a song that accompanied him. There was music and, more specifically, a musician that defined him. The musician was Townes Van Zandt. The song was "Rex's Blues." Looking back, I think it's the circumstance of that song, the inevitability of ruin, the hope of whom it's happening to, and the futility of that hope that envelops Jacob McNeely. He was born into and of that song. What I've tried to do here is come up with a soundtrack that I think follows both the narrative and the mood of the book. I'm absolutely honored to be able to share it with you, and I hope you enjoy (or rather that you're left emotionally spent).
The opening image of Where All Light Tends to Go is of the protagonist and narrator, Jacob McNeely, sitting on the edge of a water tower staring down at the kids he grew up with as they graduate from high school. It's this very introspective scene where Jacob is looking at all the dreams those kids have and all the potential in their lives and all the places they might be headed and how the world is just sitting in the palms of their hands, but at the same time he's recognizing that those are things he'll never have. The song I hear playing is Sturgill Simpson's "Time After All," but not the studio cut from the album High Top Mountain. Rather it's the slower, solo, acoustic version he performed "live in the morgue" for Nashville Scene. It's the opening verse that encapsulates that image: "They say that life can decide in the blink of eye / If our silly little dreams will ever come true / But the dreams in my mind all go by so slow / What the hell else can I do?"
One of the things that bears down on Jacob most is losing the one girl he's ever loved, Maggie Jennings, and early in the novel we see him begin to come to terms with what he's done to her and we witness this kind of acceptance of the life he was born into. When I think about Jacob looking back on what he's done and on him trying to numb those feelings with drugs and alcohol, I hear the opening lines of Townes Van Zandt's "Rake:" "I used to wake and run with the moon / I lived like a rake and a young man / I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds / My laughter, the Devil would frighten // The sun, she would come and beat me back down / But every cruel day had its nightfall / I'd welcome the stars with wine and guitars / Full of fire and forgetful."
Jacob coming to terms with the life he was born into is very much coming to terms with the father who has raised him. His mother was absent most of his life and his father is an extremely violent man who has brought his son up in an environment fueled by drugs and brutality. What we see is an eighteen-year-old kid trying desperately to follow in his father's footsteps because that is how he's been raised, but as this darkness builds around him and he tries to go through with those expectations, it becomes evident that despite how much he tries, he doesn't carry that same meanness in his blood. I can't pinpoint a line or a verse from the song because every single word of Justin Townes Earle's "Mama's Eyes" is Jacob McNeely. Every single word. And while the album cut on Midnight At The Movies is incredible, I really enjoy the live version he did on KEXP in Seattle.
When Jacob tries to do the things that he's asked to do and fails, there's this hopelessness that comes out of that failure. He seems to recognize then that it is not only circumstance and what he's been born into that governs his life, but it's his own inabilities. He can blame the world for the cards he was dealt, but he can't blame the world for how he's played the game. I think Lucero's "I'll Just Fall" from the album Tennessee captures that idea, specifically the opening lines: "I think I'll stay right down here on this floor / Cause if I get back up I'll only fall down more / It ain't the liquor and it ain't the beer that keeps me down / It ain't the sad songs or heartache it ain't even this town."
Jacob's answer for loneliness is drugs. What's true for him is also where I think a lot of addiction comes from, this overwhelming sense of a world turned against you and just this immense feeling of being completely alone. With Jacob, I think the drugs are a way to feel different, any kind of different, and the Drive-By Truckers "Goddamn Lonely Love" from The Dirty South album does that feeling justice more than any other song I know: "And I could find another dream, / One that keeps me warm and clean / But I ain't dreaming anymore, I'm waking up. / So I'll take two of what you're having and I'll take everything you got / To kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love."
When Jacob's mother commits suicide and he realizes the role that his father played in her death, he hits a low that he hasn't felt before, and the song I always heard was Townes' "Nothin,'" especially the first verse and the last three: "Hey mama, when you leave / Don't leave a thing behind / I don't want nothin' / I can't use nothin'…Your back ain't strong enough / For burdens double-fold / They'd crush you down / Down into nothin' // Being born is going blind / And buying down a thousand times / To echoes strung / On pure temptation // Sorrow and solitude / These are the precious things / And the only words / That are worth remembering."
Following the death of Jacob's mother, there is this disintegration of his entire world and as he watches everything he's ever known crumble around him, the only thing he can see that will make things right is to kill his father. There is this slow unraveling and this gradual build up toward disaster, and that progression is something captured in the Doors' "The End" from their self-titled 1967 debut. This song's a little different and out of place compared to the rest of what I hear with the novel, but I think why it fits is the momentum built musically and the build up to climactic violence: "The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on / He took a face from the ancient gallery / And he walked on down the hall…He walked on down the hall, and / And he came to a door / And he looked inside / ‘Father.' ‘Yes, son.' ‘I want to kill you.'"
After Jacob fails to kill his father, there's this numbness to the world. His mother is dead, his father would just as soon stick a knife in his own son as take him back into his home, and Maggie is headed off for better things. The song that seems most fitting is Johnny Cash's rendition of that Nine Inch Nails' song "Hurt:" "What have I become? / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end / You could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt // I wear this crown of shit / Upon my liar's chair / Full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair / Beneath the stains of time / The feelings disappear / You are someone else / I am still right here."
Despite how depressing this soundtrack and story has to seem by now, one thing I've been leaving out is the rebuilding of Jacob's relationship with Maggie Jennings, which is ultimately Jacob's one source of hope. This narrative is very much a balance of hope and fate, a sort of dreaming for possibility met by a constant reminder of inevitable circumstance. At this point in the novel, though, Maggie offers to let Jacob come with her, they'll leave the place they grew up together, and while he is beyond skeptical of opening himself up to that type of possibility, believing wholeheartedly that opening yourself up only leads to more disappointment, Maggie becomes this idealized notion of something better. Jason Isbell's "Cover Me Up" from Southeastern is undoubtedly the song that represents that love. Everything about that song, from the "heart on the run / Keeps a hand on a gun / It can't trust anyone," to the, "home was a dream / One that I'd never seen / Till you came along."
With the hope that Maggie brings into Jacob's life, I think he comes to believe that if he can find a way off the mountain, he will be all right. Despite all of his skepticism and his unwillingness to trust, Jacob sets his eyes on escaping the life he's been born into with the girl he loves. But even though he believes he can get away, there is still this overshadowing doubt, and that's what I think Blaze Foley's "If I Could Only Fly" represents (a song made famous by Merle Haggard, but one sung better by The Duct Tape Messiah himself): "If I could only fly, if I could only fly / I'd bid this place goodbye, to come and be with you / But I can hardly stand, and I got no where to run / Another sinking sun, and one more lonely night // The wind keeps blowing somewhere everyday / Tell me things get better, somewhere, up the way / Just dismal thinking on a dismal day / And sad songs for us to bare."
I think I knew Jacob's fate before I knew his story, and I think that's why when he finally spoke to me, he was accompanied by a song. More specifically, he was accompanied by the saddest song I've ever known. Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues" is the definition of a life treading the line between hope and fate. It is a song about people who where dealt a shitty hand, a song about lives decided from the start. For some people, no matter how hard they try, things fall apart. That was the life of Jacob McNeely. From that opening verse of, "Ride the blue wind, high and free / She'll lead you down through misery / Leave you low, come time to go / Alone and low, as low can be," to that final revelation that, "There ain't no dark till something shines / I'm bound to leave the dark behind," this song is Jacob's. And the way he chooses to leave the dark behind is what I hope hangs with readers after that final page. I want readers to feel empty inside.
The haunting I'm left with in how this novel ends is something only matched by the voice of Gillian Welch, by her song "I'm Not Afraid To Die" from the album Hell Among The Yearlings. I always heard this when my mind panned away from the final scene.
David Joy and Where All Light Tends to Go links:
Asheville Citizen-Times profile of the author
Entropy interview with the author
Revolution John interview with the author
Speaking of Mysteries interview with the author
Watauga Democrat interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)