“When These Mountains Burn”: Addiction, Love, and Revenge

There are a few things you can count on in a David Joy novel: beautiful lyrical descriptions of character and place, internal “codes” that dictate his character’s behavior, and deep reflections by his characters of their own circumstance. All those boxes are checked and more in his fourth novel, When These Mountains Burn. Joy wades into some new territory that separates the novel from his previous works, mostly by way of the two main characters it follows, Raymond Mathis and Denny Rattler.

Unlike his previous three novels that most closely follow younger characters, When These Mountain Burn focuses more heavily on an older man, Raymond Mathis, a widower and father of a junkie in his forties named Ricky. Ray is frustrated and confused by the growth of the drug industry where he lives, and the law’s seemingly nonchalant tactics to combat it. Ray is well aware of his son’s drug abuse, and that abuse leads to Ricky being beaten and held by a local drug crew for a ransom, which Ray pays for his son’s release. From that point on the story takes shape and the reader is taken on a journey filled with sadness, loss, and revenge, illuminating just how far a man will go to try to, quite literally, burn the systems and structures that led to his loss and pain to the ground. 

The novel also follows a Cherokee man named Denny Rattler. Denny struggles with addiction himself, but his moral code is obvious. Like Ray, Denny struggles to identify with the world around him – but in Denny’s case, regarding the Cherokee nation, he sees a positive cultural renaissance happening. There is a move away from “the mom-and-pop shops peddling project points and dream catchers,” to Cherokee children now “speaking a language that had once been washed with soap from their grandparents’ mouths.” Denny not only struggles with addiction, but also with his own image in the new Cherokee nation, and feels like “one of the outsiders pointed to, the drunk Indian, the addict Indian waiting on a per cap check to shoot into his arm.”  

Through a series of tragic and intense events, Denny ends up on a trajectory that leads him to Ray, and their interaction frames the core of the book. 

One of the complex achievements in When These Mountains Burn is the way Joy captures the progression of a police investigation. While death and destruction are happening in the trailer park “Outlet Mall,” and Raymond is trying to administer his own brand of justice to the drug dealers, a police investigation is ongoing. Joy succeeds in showing the same events through multiple lenses – the perspective of the drug dealers, the junkie, the old local man, the patrol cop, the undercover detective, and the police leadership. Joy masterfully gives weight and balance to each of these, resulting in an incredibly believable story of how they each influence the potential outcome.

Another success of the book, set during the 2016 fires that burned in western North Carolina, comes in the form of striking a balance between the mountain drug culture and other timely topics – gentrification in a college town, tensions with a Native American tribe, and “build that wall” racism surrounding an undercover cop with Venezuelan roots, to name a few.

Whether you want to enjoy a beautifully written piece of Appalachian noir that strikes similar tones as those of the titans – Ron Rash and Silas House – or an emotional story of addiction, love, revenge, and redemption, When These Mountains Burn delivers. Joy’s willingness to expand his character’s backgrounds and perspectives pays off, and what we are left with is his most complex and well-written novel to date.

When these Mountains Burn
By David Joy
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Published August 18, 2020