I was invested in Jacob McNeely, the narrator of David Joy’s novel Where All Light Tends to Go, by the end of the first chapter. The eighteen-year-old high school drop out has climbed to the top of the water tower to smoke a joint and watch what should have been his graduating class leave the school. From his perch, he can see Maggie, the girl he has loved for as long as he can remember.
…Maggie was different. Even early on I remember being amazed by her. She’d always been something slippery that I never could seem to grasp, something buried deep in her that never let anything outside of herself decide what she would become. I’d always loved that about her. I’d always loved her.
Jacob knows that once Maggie breaks free of their backwater Appalachia town, she’ll make something magnificent of her life. He also knows that his fate is set. His mother is addicted to crack; his father makes his living selling it. All Jacob has ever known is a life of violence and hardship.
The senior McNeely is a scary dude. He’s got eyes everywhere in town, including with the police. He’d kicked Jacob’s mother out years before, but kept her in a shack on his property, a house that “was truly unfit for any sort of long-term living.” Jacob visits her sometimes, mostly when he “just needed a place to kill a few hours and a safe spot to dodge the law while [he] got stoned.”
When Jacob’s father instructs him to murder an informant, and Jacob botches the job, it sets in motion a violent chain of events. His father thinks he’s soft and it is perhaps only the fact that Jacob is his son that he doesn’t kill him.
The only light in the darkness is Maggie, and Jacob wonders if perhaps there might not be a way to escape the only life he’s ever known. Maggie is going to leave and maybe he can go with her.
I could not put this book down. It is a chilling and violent and yet there is something tender about Jacob. It is this tenderness that causes him to push Maggie away, but it is that same softness that allows him to see a glimmer of the life he might have if only he were able to crawl out from under the rock of his father. I literally read the last 50 pages with my heart in my throat.
None of Jacob’s experience is my experience. I don’t know anyone who lives the way he lives, and yet that universal yearning for something better is something anyone can relate to. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to reach through the pages and just yank a character to safety. Jacob joins a list of other characters I will never forget including My Absolute Darling‘s Turtle and Our Daily Bread‘s Albert Erskine.