The average person gets 2.5 billion heartbeats in a lifetime. What will you do with yours? The question palpitates in several new books from North Carolina that offer different angles on the mysteries of the most paradoxical organ—the mechanical pump of the body that also houses the ethereal chambers of the soul.
"Hope and faith are loaded guns."
David Joy is a hell of a name for the author of Where All Light Tends to Go (G.P. Putnam's Sons, March 3), a bleak, gripping dive into the heart of darkness. Joy has lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains for much of his life, and he studied writing with Ron Rash at Western Carolina University. While something of Rash's fine, controlled style is evident in Joy's debut novel, it more resembles Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, transported from the Ozarks to Appalachia. Set among the methamphetamine-wrecked backways of Sylva, a small, poor town in the Western N.C. mountains, it's a classically proportioned tale of fathers and sons, nature and nurture, poverty and fate.
In one early scene, 18-year-old Jacob McNeely shows up at a high-school party that anyone who grew up in the rural South in the last few decades should recognize: cars parked crooked in the yard, beer pong on a kitchen island, the sweet reek of weed and rap music "blast[ing] family pictures into angles on the walls."
Jacob grew up with these kids, but he is no longer of their world. For one, he dropped out two years ago. At first, he tells us (the book is set in his terse, candid voice), he was regarded almost as a hero. But "now they recognized me for what I am, I guess," he says. "Trash."
Even before he left school, Jacob was encircled by a shadowy aura. The McNeely name rings out in Sylva, reverberating power and fear. Jacob's father is a frightening backwoods gangster who deals meth and violent coercion behind the front of an auto repair shop. He has police on his payroll and bodies in the local reservoir. The poison he deals has hooked Jacob's estranged mother, depicted as a harrowingly wasted figure dying in a shack with plastic sheets for windows.
At the party, Jacob sees Maggie—his friend and, maybe, something more—about to snort meth, which he abhors, though he drinks, smokes and takes Xanax. Maggie's boyfriend, a college-hippie type, insults him. Joy's rendering of the ensuing violence is coldly exultant. Jacob's first punch "sent a red mist hanging on air," and it keeps hanging throughout the book.
Though unusually savage, it's just a high-school fight, paling against a prior act of violence Jacob was involved in, where a man tied to a chair with wire had sulfuric acid thrown in his face. "Daddy wanted me to be a man and it was things like this that made you one," Jacob thinks.
As he becomes more mired in his father's business, he desperately revives a stunted dream of moving to Wilmington with Maggie, who has the spark to escape this open-air prison of yellowed faces, rotten teeth and grinding jaws—if she can find the money for college. The question of which way Jacob will go forms the plot's tightly wound mainspring.
Especially for a debut, Joy's story has a powerful economy of form, and he writes with a precise command of the harsh lyricism of country noir. The inevitable debt to Cormac McCarthy is paid in an epigraph. Laconic poetry is found in the motion of the voice, not in rhetorical devices. The sentences are short, as stark and abrupt as the landscape of buckling shanties, scrub pines and scorched grass they describe—a terrain indistinguishabe from the people it breeds, who are "tough as piss oak," their throats "dry as talc." This barrren essentialism is reflected in their speech, which has just enough racism and misogyny for verisimilitude, and their meager, take-what-you-can state of mind.
As the body count and the interest from the police rise, we start to believe, along with Jacob, that Maggie is his only way out. She's one of the few people around who can imagine life outside of Sylva; Jacob's tragedy is that he can see the other side but doesn't believe he belongs there. Joy draws him as a person with a stubborn moral compass embedded deep in his heart, the needle twisted by his straitened time and place but struggling, against all odds, for true north.
"Our heartbreak is an ancient story."
If Joy stalks the figurative chambers of the heart, N.C. State professor Rob Dunn sails into its actual "rivers and backwaters, their murmuring synonymous with being alive." In The Man Who Touched His Own Heart (Little Brown and Company, Feb. 3), Dunn whisks us through the history of cardiology, from its first archaic (and often brutal) stirrings to the latest innovations, raising an alarm about cardiovascular disease in the process.
He does so by staging entertaining scenes from history: We witness Galen, the father of modern medicine, gutting a Barbary macaque in a city plaza; Leonardo da Vinci coming to understand the heart's valves by observing the motions of rivers and streams; and a stabbing victim receiving the first heart surgery ever in 1893. At the other end, we learn much of stents, transplants, artificial hearts and bypass surgery through case studies and portraits of scientists and patients.
The account is brisk and accessible, but it might be a bit detail-heavy in the back half for casual reading. Still, knowledge hoarders will relish Dunn's vivid historical scenes and explanations of cutting-edge research, not to mention the lifeblood pumping through them: the author's enthusiasm. "We find something new each time we look," he marvels, "especially when we consider a great and poorly trammeled wilderness such as ourselves."
"Where is it written that a sane, vigorous man of seventy has to pack it in?"
If you missed Hillsborough novelist Allan Gurganus' 2013 story collection Local Souls, his acclaimed return to fiction after more than a decade away, here's a chance to sneak in its back door via the standalone paperback of its novella, Decoy (Liveright Publishing Corporation, March 2). Aptly for a work of fantasy (albeit one without wizards and elves), it opens with a hand-drawn map of Falls, North Carolina, a fictional hamlet near Gurganus' hometown of Rocky Mount, also the setting of his most famous novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
In his colloquial, conversational style, Gurganus spins a folk tale about his "Fallen" dealing with a distinctly Biblical flood that unleashes all manner of catharsis, particularly for two married men. A doctor who has retired to carve duck decoys and a patient with a congenital heart condition confront the erotic shadings of their long friendship. Gurganus carefully weighs comfort against desire, stability against passion. With his warm, humane ranconteur's sensibility, he unabashedly celebrates living intimately among people you know, however stifling. But his fable also has an acerbic comic edge, reminiscent of O'Connor and Twain.
"Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart."
The first full-length book by local poet Ansel Elkins, who studied at UNC-Greensboro, was selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. Blue Yodel (Yale University Press, March 31) is a quietly visionary symphony of archetypal Southern landscapes freighted with the voices of the lost and the different, from a murdered wife and a lynched slave to a girl who grows antlers and a child stolen by a tornado. With dreamlike lucidity, the poems balance the deceptive softness of cotton fields and the hard glint of barbed wire, all haunted by Dixieland racial issues and Old Testament vengeance. Despite her calm, straightforward line, the author paints herself as an almost feral observer of atavistic Southern rites, with a drive to "unleash / the wild animal that you are."
"I met the devil dressed in white on his way home from mass in Portobelo, Panama."
Two new books turn on the maxim that home is wherever you hang your heart. In the scholarly work When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in Twentieth-Century Panama (Ohio State University Press, Jan. 28), UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor Renée Alexander Craft explores the African Diaspora in Panama through the lens of Congo, an Afro-Latin carnival tradition celebrating the Cimarrones' resistance to slavery. In the Spanish colonial period, they escaped to the Americas and formed new communities. The Congo drama pits them against enslavers represented as Devils, a Christian icon the Spanish used as a means of suppression, reappropriated as parody. Alexander Craft tells the story of their self-liberation, and situates the Congo tradition's construction of identity in the broader context of blackness in Panama, through meticulous ethnography.
"I was a Tar Heel in exile, and happy about it."
Marianne Gingher, a UNC-Chapel Hill English professor, solicited original essays from 21 notable North Carolina writers for Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers (UNC Press, March 23). The contributors reflect on why they came or why they stayed, how the state features in their work and how it doesn't. Enthusiastic title aside, the book is often gratifyingly unsentimental, exploring the rich ambiguity of a writer's relationship to place rather than blandly celebrating it.
Michael McFee writes about fleeing and returning to the Appalachian Mountains that feature in his verse. Lee Smith fashions a memoir of a literary marriage that spans Hillsborough and Chapel Hill. Clyde Edgerton digs up ghosts in a Civil War graveyard; Wells Tower offers wry comic "postcards" from an Orange County childhood; and Belle Boggs, a Virginia transplant, writes about finding belonging in a place where it's common to be from somewhere else.
Divided into sections on "The Mountains," "The Piedmont" and "Down East and the Coast," the book acknowledges that our diverse biospheres produce diverse experiences. As Fred Chappell writes, "The trouble is, North Carolina is many places, and most of us can know only a few of them well enough to write about."
He's right, which is what makes this geographically cross-sectioned compendium of personal and state history a little treasure.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Coronary Art."