Book Review: When These Mountains Burn by David Joy

When These Mountains Burn

David Joy

August 18, 2020

David Joy returns with a fierce and tender tale of a father, an addict, a lawman, and the explosive events that come to unite them.

Opiates steal thousands of souls every day. A modern pestilence, that feels biblical. In North Carolina, in 2018, an estimated 79% of drug overdose deaths involved opioids. During the same time span, 9.7% of new HIV positive diagnosis and 87% of new Hepatitis C cases were caused by drug users sharing needles (per

The horrors of addiction, the bonds of family, and the hills of Appalachia are the blocks David Joy uses to construct When These Mountains Burn

When These Mountains Burn is a novel published by G.P. Putnam and Sons and available wherever books are sold on August 18th, 2020. The novel features one of the best-looking dustjackets I’ve seen, a true work of art.

David Joy is a well-known author quickly becoming a super-star author. His work straddles the line between noir and literary fiction with admirable confidence. From my reading, Joy writes “his” story and doesn’t “chase the market”. He isn’t writing to please a book-club. He creates from a deeper place. 

Joy’s approach is paying off, When These Mountains Burn shines. I’ve read his prior novels and I think this is his best work—a big statement as he’s been nominated for an Edgar Award.

The novel is about Raymond Mathis, Denny Rattler, DEA Agent Ronald Holland, and addiction. Mathis is attempting to save his son from opiates. This impulse to rescue is ruining him, both emotionally and financially. Denny Rattler is a Cherokee Nation member and heroin addict. Denny commits calculated, small crimes to get funding for his next high. Holland is a DEA Agent who has lost his belief in the criminal justice system. Holland is a mercenary, in it for money and excitement. As the novel progresses, Raymond’s son dies with Denny in the room. Simultaneously, Agent Holland investigates the murky drug-world of Western North Carolina.

These three men, through the weight of unavoidable decisions, become entangled with one another. A vigilante, a junkie, and a lawman float through Appalachia’s hills. Things get violent, unexcepted alliances are formed, and it ends in a surprising way.

The opening paragraph is a showcase of Joy’s talent and serves as the introduction of Raymond Mathis:

Rain bled over the dusty windshield. Raymond Mathis wrung the steering wheel in his fists trying to remember if there was anything left worth taking. The front door of his house stood open and from the driveway he knew who’d broken in. Fact was, if it wasn’t nailed down, it was already gone. What pawned easily went first and now the boy stole anything that looked like it might hold any value at all.

As shown above, Joy is a master of prose. His writing slides off the page, and you lose track of where you are, wrapped up in the story. I love his voice. His word choice and sentence construction are both delightful.

The setting and subject-matter reminded me of J. Todd Scott’s recent Lost River. They are both dark Appalachian addiction stories. However, Scott’s writing style is more clipped, and Joy’s more florid. For example, Joy writes:

The world settled onto him like fog on a mountain, and, in that moment, was as close a thing to love as he’d felt in forever.

I love that sentence.

This was a good book. Fans of Brian Panowich and William Kent Kruger (like me) will enjoy this novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joy earns another Edgar nomination. If you are after a beautifully written dark addiction story—this is your best bet.


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