When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy*****

David Joy writes some of the best Grit Lit published in the U.S. of A, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to get started. This soaring, wrenching tale of addiction, community dysfunction, and miserable unrelenting poverty delivers some hard truths about the distribution of wealth in this country, and about the uneven way that justice plays out. Lucky me, I read it free and early; my thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It’s for sale today.

Ray Mathis is a big man with a big burden. His wife, Doris, has been dead for three years, but his grief hasn’t ebbed. A stoic man, he goes in and out of every day carrying out necessary tasks, but he feels as if his arm is missing, all the time. His companionship comes solely from his old hunting beagle, Tommy Two-Ton. His only child is Ricky, and although Ricky is in his forties, Ray still thinks of him as “the boy.” When the boy comes home, Ray is suffused with a sense of dread. Ricky is a hardcore addict, and all those stories you were told in junior high health class are true: a junkie has no loyalties and no shame great enough to override his need for the substance he’s come to crave. When he sees that Ricky is home for a visit, Ray’s first instinct is to check his few valuables that haven’t been stolen and pawned yet to see if they’ve vanished.

Is this all too familiar to some of you? Because it hit close to home for me.

Not long after he arrives, Ricky is gone again, and that’s not unusual; but later he gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know. The caller says that Ricky has failed to meet a payment and will die if Ray doesn’t pay up. Because Ricky has no shame, he has told them exactly how much is in his father’s savings account. And though he understands that it’s only going to postpone the inevitable, Ray pays up, but he tells the men that collect that he will be back for them if they ever sell to his son again. And when Ricky is back on opiates before he has even recovered from the savage beating administered by the dealer’s goons, Ray tells him, “I’ve thrown you ropes till my arms is give out, and I ain’t got no more to throw.”                 `               “            

Meanwhile, our second protagonist, Denny Rattler, a Cherokee burglar, is arrested and offered treatment for his own addiction, but he declines. It turns out that the very purest heroin is sold on the Cherokee Reservation, and so jurisdictional issues complicate law enforcement. Still worse, there are dirty cops right on the other side of the state line. Denny finds himself in the middle of it all.

One of the nastiest villains in literature is Walter Freeman, who goes by “Watty.” “I ain’t calling you that,” Ray tells him. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard.” Ray confronts Watty after his son’s death to deliver some “backwoods justice,” but Watty is entirely unmoved. He doesn’t even remember Ricky. He leaves the individual users to the minions beneath him. He tells the bereaved father, “Your son is small potatoes. They’re all small potatoes. It’s too much of a headache, dealing with junkies.”

It’s forest fire season in the Appalachian Mountains, and as the conflict between Ray and Watty, between Watty and local law enforcement, and among the addicts, law enforcement and Watty build, a conflagration begins on the reservation, encompassing the “Outlet Mall,” where drugs are sold.  The entire ordeal rises to a fever pitch that leaves me sitting forward, as if the outcome is just beyond my physical reach. At one point I am sure everyone will die, and I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as nothing happens to Tommy Two-Ton.

What Joy does with the conclusion is tremendously satisfying. When I reviewed his last book, I felt as if he had wimped out on the ending, but this time it’s rock solid. It isn’t predictable, yet there are no new people or facts introduced at the last minute to prevent us from foreseeing the outcome, either.

In fact, this may be his best book yet.

I’ll offer a final word about genre. This book is billed as Crime Fiction, and that’s not how I see it. I consider this novel to be gritty Southern Fiction at its finest. The fact that it happens to involve crime as an integral part of the story is almost beside the point. But call it what you will, this book is one of the year’s best, and you should get it and read it.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas***

Firewatching is the first in the Adam Tyler detective series, and also the first novel written by Russ Thomas. It’s been praised by Lee Child, and published by Putnam Penguin, an auspicious sign. Thanks go to the publisher and Net Galley for the review copy.

All of the right elements are here for a rip roaringly great tale, but the execution fell short. When I found myself drifting off while reading the digital review copy, I went to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked out the audio book. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to all of it, either. I kept with it to the 45 percent mark; skipped to 75 percent in hopes there would be something tantalizing that would reel me back in; and when that didn’t work out, I listened to snippets from there to the end.

Here’s what I like. Conceptually, it sounds promising. Tales of crazed arsonists are generally irresistible, and there haven’t been a lot of them published lately. Fiction writing is as prone to fad and whim as is anything else, as any reviewer can see. This story steers clear of dead, sick, or disabled siblings; Paris; alternate past and present narratives, and struggling alcoholic detectives. Detective Tyler resists his boss’s impulse toward stereotypes. There are two elderly women side characters, one of whom struggles with dementia, and Tyler is told that old women in small towns always love gossip; he refers to them often as “the old dears.” I know I am not the only Boomer that wants to smack that obnoxious character, and so Tyler endears himself to me by not going there. And actually, I like the two older women in this story a great deal. I also like the brief—maybe too brief—passages where we are inside the head of the firebug.

But alas, the story’s protagonist isn’t the arsonist, and it isn’t either of the elderly women. It’s Tyler, and Tyler just bores the snot out of me. I want him to just do something. I don’t need to know what he is wearing, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, wearing, feeling some more, thinking….

During my teaching career, I recall one impatient girl that was sent home for a few days because of her tendency to walk up to a teacher that was standing in her way—tutoring, or speaking to another student—and barking at him, “MOVE!” And I found myself channeling this student as I read and/or listened to this story. I don’t care about your damn wardrobe, Tyler, just move! Move it! Do something, for the love of…

Fine. Whatever.

A possible silver lining occurs to me, and that is that with this first in a series, all of the personal details of wardrobe and emotion may be emphasized in order to introduce the protagonist, and perhaps with the second in the series, the pace will pick up and we’ll be on our way. I surely hope so.

But for now, I can only write about what I know, and I know it would be wrong of me to urge you to purchase this book at full jacket price. If you’re going to read it, get it cheap or free, because most of the joy I see here is in potential, and future maybe-joy makes a thin soup indeed.

Best Overall Fiction 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Best Historical Fiction of 2019: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

Honorable Mentions:

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.