David Joy likes and respects his characters. From his native North Carolina, they are working men, hunting men, in the iconic, laconic model of the independent, often ornery, American male.
They are proud men for whom life is not a series of choices but a routine built on a simple and rigid honor code. Friendship requires unquestioning loyalty and a violent act demands vengeance.
And that is how Calvin Hooper, in Joy’s latest novel, “The Line That Held Us,” a construction worker, becomes a tragic figure. His friend Darl Moody, poaching deer out of season on a neighbor’s property, accidentally shoots a man to death. Calvin, though with a heavy heart and deep misgivings, helps him bury the body. But when that man’s brother, Dwayne Brewer, discovers their secret, an inexorable logic takes over. One wrongful death requires another, so Dwayne slits Darl’s throat and leaves the body in his barn while he ponders his next move. Joy depicts Dwayne as a man with no choice but to take revenge and conclude afterward, “He paid what he owed.”
But now the plot, as it has to in a novel, thickens. What kind of justice is to be meted out to Calvin, who helped Darl out of his duty to friendship? What happens when one requirement of the manly honor code slams into another, the duty of vengeance?
Now two other characters become mixed into Dwayne’s calculus; Calvin’s lovely, endearing fiancée Angie, and Detective Michael Stillwell from the sheriff’s office, who is investigating Darl’s murder. What if he comes to the truth?
As Dwayne plots and rages, Joy invests him and the other protagonists with the high, formal diction of fated tragedy. As Dwayne confronts Calvin, he poses what for him is the ultimate moral question: “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that, there is nothing.” Calvin, staring down the barrel of a gun, yet muses, “Everyone is scared of dying, but having it held over you like some unflinching shadow, a darkness neither growing nor receding, always there, that was enough to drive a man mad.”
But now, as the novel barrels close to violent retribution, it stutters and hesitates. The end comes out of left field, not at all what we were led to expect. I will leave it to you to decide whether Joy has cheated on his plotting or allowed his characters an unforeseen grace.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis and a winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
The Line That Held Us
By: David Joy.
Publisher: Putnam, 256 pages, $27.