Book Review

Meredith McCarroll on
a novel by David Joy
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2023


White people need to talk about race. White people need to read about race. White people need to write about race. Yet when white people engage in these acts, they make themselves easy targets. John Howard Griffin took too many liberties in Black Like Me (1961); Harriet Beecher Stowe relied on sentimentality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For each of these moments, there was a black writer highlighting racial injustices from their lived experiences. James Baldwin did not need Griffin; Frederick Douglass did not need Stowe. Or did they? 

To bring about change, to engage the widest range of readers emotionally and to empower change, white complicity and responsibility must sometimes be centered. 

In David Joy’s latest novel, Those We Thought We Knew, white readers are compelled toward self-examination within a murder mystery rich with complex characters and a deep sense of place. Joy manages to skillfully balance the narrative—which centers on a racially-motivated murder of a young black woman in the mountains of North Carolina—and an analysis of white responsibility that ranges from quiet complicity to active white supremacy. For Joy, each white character—as complex and varied as they may be—carries blame. And each white character has responsibility to do better. 

Those We Thought We Knew is a novel of its time. Just as Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940) reflects the sponsorship by the American Communist Party at a pivotal political moment and just as In the Heat of the Night (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1967) reflects the uncertainty at an inflection point in the Civil Rights Movement, Joy’s latest novel pays close attention to and is deeply informed by the contemporary American racial landscape. Writing over several years leading up to the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Joy is an astute observer—able to reflect back the layered and complex tensions in the buildup that finally engaged white readers with texts like White Fragility (Robin D’Angelo, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X Kendi, 2019). Joy has written a novel that will not say anything new to a black reader with inherited racial trauma, but instead focuses on white readers who are too able to look away from their own roles in America’s racial tragedy. As one character comes to see, after each viral act of racial violence, white Americans have a way out: “You hold your breath. A minute goes by. The room goes quiet. You forget. You have no reason to relive or remember, and that is the fortune of your hand.”

The power of Joy’s protest piece is its simplicity as he holds up
a mirror to the white community—making evident the quiet
shrugs, the avoidant nods, and the unacknowledged prejudice
that enables the violent acts that we call racism. 

The book opens with Toya Gardner, a young Atlanta artist and grandchild of the mountains, creating a protest piece on the campus of a college where deceased members of a black community, including members of Gardner’s own family, were removed from their graveyard in the name of development. On this site, she creates a piece of art to draw attention to this fact. The simplicity of the act is its power, yet her work is not uniformly understood. And the reaction to her work, unsurprisingly, is divided and divisive. The act catalyzes a discussion about race, which most enter with their memorized and inherited scripts. Sherriff Coggins, a white man who is a long-time friend of the Gardner family, recites his lines, as do members of the Klan and small-town cops. The power of Joy’s protest piece is its simplicity as he holds up a mirror to the white community—making evident the quiet shrugs, the avoidant nods, and the unacknowledged prejudice that enables the violent acts that we call racism. As Vess, Toya’s grandmother says to Sheriff Coggins, “People like to think racism looks a certain way, that it’s a ‘Whites Only’ sign in a restaurant window or a cross burning in sombebody’s yard, but it don’t have to look like that. It can be a whole lot more subtle than that. It can light every once in a while like them lighting bugs out there, just real subtle, so that if you wasn’t paying attention you probably wouldn’t even see it.”  Those We Thought We Knew draws our eye toward the subtle and makes it so that we can’t believe we didn’t see it all along. And like Gardner’s protest, Joy’s book is likely to be misunderstood and certain to evoke some white resentment. 

This means it is working. 

In “Richard Wright’s Blues,” written in 1945, Ralph Ellison offers analysis of Wright’s work—including the ways that it has been misunderstood. To Ellison, Wright merges the emotional experience of black trauma with the political context in order to craft an engaging—if heavy-handed—narrative. Ellison writes, “Wright learned that it is not enough merely to reject the white South, but that he had also to reject that part of the South which lay within.” Joy offers a similar call to the contemporary reader—those within and beyond the South—understanding that this multivalent racism knows no geographic boundaries. Ask Eric Gardner in Staten Island. Ask Kayla Moore in Berkely. A rejection of internalized racism is as necessary as a task force to control white supremacist groups. As Ellison puts it, there is “no scapegoat but the self” in Wright’s world, and I would extend that to Joy’s.

Those We Thought We Knew aims high—offering an analysis of race in a small southern mountain town in the form of a murder mystery presented from several key characters. Joy can tell a good story. Read any of his first four novels and you’ll experience his skill with building characters each unique in voice and perspective, crafted with a gentle hand. Joy is adept at shaping a narrative arc that pulls a reader forward. At the close of a David Joy novel, you feel as if you have entered the landscape itself. The local dialect is in your mouth and you can just see the fog lifting over the mountains. If Those We Thought We Knew has a flaw to some readers, it might be that the story takes a backseat to the message. As one character says, “I guess there comes a moment you start realizing that keeping your mouth shut’s the same thing as nodding your head.” In his devotion to expose the layered realities of white power, he aligns himself with Richard Wright. In his attempt to reach white readers and call them to action, he channels Harriet Beecher Stowe. His resistance to easy solutions links him to Norman Jewison. There are times that call for a writer unafraid to shine a light in the darkest corners. This is such a time, and David Joy is such a writer. 

Meredith McCarroll is a writer and writing teacher living in Portland, Maine. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bitter Southerner, Avidly, Southern Cultures, Still: The Journal, Cutleaf, Cleaver and elsewhere. McCarroll is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (University of Georgia Press). Along with Anthony Harkins, McCarroll edited Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press) which won the Weatherford Award and the American Book Award. McCarroll is currently at work on a book project that explores lineage and inheritance, reckons with claims to place and culture, and explores what we literally pass down through blood but also what we inherit through proximity.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


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