They say we need to learn to talk to each other. They say we need to bridge the rural-urban divide. But that’s hard when folks see trailers and immediately think “trash.” David Joy, one of the most celebrated young Southern novelists, today brings us some nonfiction — some genuine truth about his people, who are among the most misunderstood in the South.
Story by David Joy | Photographs by Ashley T. Evans
We drove there on birthdays and holidays. Past farm ponds colored chocolate milk. Past yellow fields of oat grass that waved and flickered in sunlight like heads of windblown hair. Gravel crunched under tires as we eased along a dirt road just a few minutes from where we lived to the trailer where my grandfather survived.
My grandfather, or what was left of him, was worn down and wiry. Hair slicked back, his eyes were the same pale blue color of his work shirts. He wore a pair of Dickies dirtied at the knees. His veins rose from his arms like tree roots, tattoos aged almost green in his skin. For lack of a better way of putting it, the old man had a look like he could strangle the life out of you. The fact of the matter was there was more to that look than just words.
When I was growing up, my grandfather was married to a crazy-haired woman named Dez who named all her daughters after flowers — Rose, Lily, Daisy, a whole garden of kids. Dez might’ve been as close to wicked as I’ve ever known in this world, but for reasons that escaped most folks, my grandfather always found his way back to her. One time they were fighting about God-knows-what and she loaded the shotgun, walked him out into the front yard, pulled the trigger, and peppered his back with bird shot. My uncle went to see him while the doctor was still picking the pellets out of his spine. When the law walked in and asked the old man if he wanted to press charges he just shook his head. The officer asked what he was going to do when he got out of the hospital, where he’d go, and my grandfather said simply, “I’m gonna go home.”
He paused and added, “And I’m gonna kill the bitch.”
In the end, he didn’t kill her, and deep down it’s because in some incomprehensible way he loved her. One of his deepest truths was that he was a horrible alcoholic and he knew how bad he was without her. Ultimately, my grandfather knew she was the only one who could keep a bottle out of his hand and so despite what she did to him, he always came back because in that single way she was what kept him from drowning.
To say my grandfather was tough as nails would be to sell him short. As a kid, he slit his femoral artery on a rusted pipe diving into a river, should’ve bled out, but didn’t. He fought on the front lines in World War II, smoked and drank all his life, walked away from countless car wrecks, survived cancer time and time again, even when doctors cut out his tongue.
I remember when I was little riding with my father to the VA in Salisbury, North Carolina, every couple days while my grandfather lay in bed dying. That’s what the doctors said: dying. They gave a short timeline and we visited often. Every time we came, we stood there in the room and he lay there in bed, eyes closed, machines keeping him breathing. We’d sit there a while waiting on the end and eventually turn around and drive home because the end never came. One day my grandfather decided he’d slept long enough and he opened his eyes and climbed out of there like he was waking from a catnap. Turns out we could’ve waited on the end forever and it still wouldn’t have come because once again the old man wasn’t ready.
The thing about it is, I’m not talking about men being like cats, having nine lives. The way my grandfather did it wasn’t like that at all. What I’m talking about are people being too mad at this world to lie down and die. That was him in a nutshell. His survival was a matter of stubbornness and anger. His survival was a matter of looking bitterly at the hand he’d been dealt and saying, “Sorry, boys, but I ain’t done playing.”
My father didn’t have it easy growing up. Some of his earliest memories are in a one-bedroom shack he called the rat house where he was afraid to go to sleep because he was terrified the rats would gnaw his feet off while he dreamed. He remembers scrounging around for cans of vienna sausages to fight off stomach pangs, killing squirrels to keep from starving. He was only five or six, but life was a matter of survival.
Eventually my dad was raised by his aunt, his father’s sister, who took him in as her own the way it happens so often where I come from. Still, if you were to ask my father to this day to recall his dad, he wouldn’t tell you stories about his old man kicking him out on the side of the road or giving him presents only to horse-trade them away soon as he was drunk at the bar. What my father would say is that his daddy was a fine carpenter and was hell with a twenty-gauge come rabbit season. He’d tell you stories like how his old man could talk to animals. He’d tell you how one time he sat by a campfire along the river while his father and his friends drank their minds into oblivion jug-fishing for catfish, how he heard a screech owl in the woods, and how his father drunkenly fought his way through briars and brush into the dark and brought that owl out to his son like he was fetching a dog.
When I think about the relationship between my dad and his father, there’s a line from a Maurice Manning poem that always eats me up. Even conjuring the words to my mind, I find my eyes filling with tears. The line reads, “I loved the helpless people I loved.” That’s the truth of it. That’s why my dad will never say a cross word about his father, because despite all his faults, it was his daddy. It was his daddy we went to see every time we rode back into that trailer park, the rest of us dreading being dragged there. It was his daddy he laid in the ground when the old man finally decided to die, and that’s exactly what my father said as he stood there with his eyes glassed over at the grave, Dez not even bothering to get out of the car.
“He was my daddy,” my father said. Just those four words. Nothing else.
Nowadays, I make my living as a full-time novelist. I write about fathers and sons. I write about friendship. I write about poverty and hopelessness, addiction and violence. I had a novel come out a few weeks back, “The Weight Of This World,” a book The New York Times called “bleakly beautiful” and “[a] pitiless novel about a region blessed by nature but reduced to desolation and despair.” The Associated Press praised the pacing and prose, and noted how trailers and churches dot my landscape. A part of me couldn’t understand why that was noteworthy, but I guess it seems strange to people on the outside. What I hope they see too, though, is that this is a place sopping wet with raw emotion, a landscape drenched with humanity. It is all I know and it is beautiful.
So often people hear that word “trailer” and their minds follow with “trash.” Maybe it was growing up going to my grandfather’s or maybe it was growing up with a trailer park just across the road, but as a child I don’t remember ever thinking that I was better than the kids I played with because I lived in a house and they lived in trailers. It wasn’t that I was oblivious to class. I recognized some folks had more than others, that I had a little more than them, and the rest of the world had a lot more than any of us. I recognized class. It’s just that I don’t remember ever equating class to a person’s worth, and I count myself lucky for that. We all rode the same bus and went to the same school. We bickered and fought, made up secret handshakes and loved each other like brothers and that’s just the way it was, kids being kids.
Any one of them could find their way into a novel of mine.
There was a big, black boy named Darrell who was one of my best friends at Tuckaseegee Elementary. Both of us were about a foot too tall for our age, but I was a vine and he was built like a tank. I remember he had one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard, a smile that could warm you up like you were standing by a woodstove. I remember one time he cut the eyeball out of a fish and brought it to school in a little Ziploc bag he stuffed in his pocket because he thought I’d like to have it, and I did. I did like it. So the next day I brought him a pocketful of .22-caliber bullets as a thank you.
There was a little, stubby moon-faced boy named Smokey who was a few years younger than me. We all smoked cigarettes. He was about eight or nine years old and he’d steal soft packs of Doral 100s from his mother’s carton she kept in the freezer. One time, a buddy and me pushed Smokey out into the middle of a farm pond in a leaky johnboat without a paddle and pelted him with rotten goose eggs till he threw up over the side. One time I remember a kid making fun of Smokey for living in a trailer. Smokey hauled off and hit him right in his mouth and exclaimed, “I don’t live in a goddamn trailer! I live in a double-wide!” The bottom line was Smokey understood class just like I did, that where you live doesn’t have a thing in the world to do with what a man deserves.
I remember these two brothers named Bubba and Lyndon. Bubba was my age and had greasy hair and a pair of cloudy, coke-bottle glasses that he couldn’t see through. We played machine-pitch baseball together and he never hit a thing. His brother Lyndon had pale eyes and bright orange hair. When he was about sixteen or so, he and his old man got into a fight and Lyndon tore off out of the trailer, hopped in his car, and made it a quarter mile out of the park when a truck T-boned him and severed his head clean off.
The kids I grew up with came to know truths that don’t reach most people until they’re adults if they ever reach them at all. There’s a poem by one of my favorite writers, the Kentucky poet Rebecca Gayle Howell, titled “My Mother Told Us Not To Have Children,” and in that poem she has a line where she asks, “Is gentleness a resource of the privileged?” She answers, “In this respect, my people were poor. / We fought to eat and fought each other because // we were tired from fighting. We had no time / to share. Instead our estate was honesty, // which is not tenderness.” And maybe that’s all I’ve ever really known: honesty. Maybe that’s all any of us knew.
The other day I was watching a BBC interview about poverty in Baltimore. One of the people being interviewed said something that really struck me. He looked into the camera deadpan and beaten and he said, “Desperation is a way of living.” When he said that, I couldn’t help but think, maybe it’s not just gentleness that’s a resource of the privileged. Maybe hope is a resource of the privileged, and maybe that’s what people don’t get about the kids I grew up with, about the characters I write about in my novels.
I get asked all the time why my characters aren’t hopeful. What I say again and again is this: It’s hard to be hopeful when you’re worried about your next meal, when the only thought to ever cross your mind is how you’re going to make it through the day. I grew up in a place where we drank red Kool-Aid out of old pickle jars and mayonnaise jars used for pitchers. When they took me inside their trailers and invited me to eat, we cherry-picked slices of white bread off the loaf to miss the slices mice had nibbled the corners off. The mice always ate the corners. Just the corners and wasted the rest. Even then it seemed so cruel to me, a world where that happened. I’ll never forget that. And the thing is, the kids I grew up with had it relatively easy compared to some.
I get the same kind of questions about addiction. People don’t understand what would push someone to drugs like methamphetamine or heroin. They don’t understand what would make a man drink like my grandfather. The reason they can’t understand it is because they’ve never been that low. When all you’ve got is a twenty-dollar bill, twenty dollars doesn’t ward off eviction notices. Twenty dollars doesn’t get you health insurance. Twenty dollars doesn’t make a car payment. Twenty dollars doesn’t even keep the lights on. But twenty dollars can take you right out of this world for just a little while. Just a minute. Just long enough to breathe. That’s what every single addict I’ve ever known really wanted: just a second to breathe.
I’ve known addicts all my life. I walked along that edge a long time myself and stumbled time and time again, but luckily never fell over. I’ve had friends die from heroin overdoses. I helped look after a little boy born addicted to crack and watched him struggle to learn the simplest words, all of us doubting he’d ever be able to talk. The boy’s father was a friend of mine’s uncle, a man named Donny. Years ago, Donny wrecked his car and a telephone pole swung down from lines like a wrecking ball, crashed through the windshield, and smashed his fiancée’s brains out right there in the seat beside him. When the law pulled up, Donny was picking pieces of her out of the floorboard and trying to stick them back on her face. He was talking to her like she was still alive. I might’ve wondered a lot of things about him over the course of my life, but I never once wondered why he used. I never once wondered why all he wanted was to leave this world for a little while.
A few weeks ago, I was reading at a bookstore in Raleigh, North Carolina and three of the people in the audience worked in mental health. One of them was an addiction counselor. At the end of the reading, she asked me what was the one thing I thought could help people most. My answer was the same as it’s always been: listen. Just listen. The truth is we live in a world where we don’t listen to people anymore. So often we’re just waiting for the next opening to respond. What we need to realize is that sometimes people don’t need advice. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is just to keep our mouths shut and let them empty themselves into our hands. When they’re finished, we don’t need to do anything with what they’ve given us. We just need to show them that we’re holding it for them till they can catch their breath.
There’s a moment in my latest novel when the only thing one of the characters has ever wanted was exactly that: “But no one listened anymore. No one. And perhaps it was that not listening that led to things like this. Perhaps it was that not listening that made the world so volatile.” Just as I’m asked about hope and drug use, I’m always asked about violence — why is there so much violence in my work — and for me violence is tied directly to this idea of being heard.
Over and over again I watched the kids I grew up with explode because no one would take the time to hear them. Sometimes when no one will listen all you can do to be heard is to make them feel you, a sort of now-do-you-hear-me plea when you just can’t take anymore. I lost my first friend to suicide when I was eighteen years old. I lost the next one almost a year later to the day. I’ve lost six friends to suicide altogether and I’m only thirty-three years old. When I think about why, I think about listening. I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d just been there to open my hands, if I’d just been there to say, “Pour yourself onto me. I’m here.”
I dedicated this last book to a friend I grew up with named Paco. He had strawberry-blond hair, a face that glowed like sunrise, and could absolutely skin an electric guitar. Paco worked on fishing boats in Alaska for a while and at the end of those four-month trips he’d step off the boat and they’d hand him a check for twenty, sometimes $30,000. One night he showed up in front of my dorm when I was in college and he’d bought an old ’80s model stretch limousine and we rode all around the mountains blasting the theme song from “Cheers” through busted speakers laughing like tickled children.
After 9/11, Paco joined the Marine Corps and served multiple deployments to Iraq. There are pictures of him standing in the moon dust over there, cigarette dangling in his teeth, holding up an M-249 SAW machine gun like he’s Kerry King playing a B.C. Rich guitar for Slayer. There’s another photo of prisoners they’d taken, on their knees, hands bound at their backs, black sacks over their faces, Paco standing between them with his thumbs up like The Fonz. I don’t know what all Paco saw on the front lines of combat or how it affected him. But what I do know is that when he came home, one day he walked into his house, shot his brother, shot his father, and killed himself. What I do know is that when the news told the story, I watched how they stripped my friend of his humanity like he was trash. I watched helplessly and all I could think was that if I listened hard enough I could still hear the echo of his laughter as we rode through the mountains in that beat-up limousine.
Maybe that’s why what I read in a trade review recently struck me so hard. The reviewer didn’t like my book, and that’s all right. A whole lot of people don’t like my books, and that’s perfectly OK. My books aren’t for everyone. This reviewer didn’t like what he called my “Southern Poverty Law Center photorealism.” This is what got me, though. He wrote that I should “leave the peeling trailers, come down out of the hollers, and try writing about people for a change.” He actually italicized that word, people, to be sure and say that what lives in those trailers, what finds itself in a world consumed by hopelessness, addiction, and violence, those aren’t people at all. I’m not sure what he thinks men like my grandfather, boys like Darrell, Smokey, Bubba and Lyndon, men like Donny, like Paco are, other than to use his own words, “trailer trash.”
But what he misses is this. These are people who just like everyone else experience happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. These are people who love and hate, people who cry their eyes out when they lose someone close, people who cry their eyes out when they laugh so hard they keel over, people who’d sell the last thing they had to put food on the table, people who work eighty hours a week to break even. These are people who’d strangle the life out of a man who dared stand in front of their children and say a word like trash like he had any idea what their life was worth. When I think about my family, my father and grandfather, when I think about all the boys I grew up with, all the ones who ended it, when I think about the hopeless, the addicts, the violence, I again remember that line from Maurice Manning. I loved the helpless people I loved, and maybe that’s why I can’t sit back while someone spits in their faces.
As I write this essay, I find that I’m tired. I’m tired of standing by silently while privileged people in privileged places strip those less fortunate of their humanity. I’m tired of living in a place where men like my grandfather and Paco are shipped off to front lines to die for profit margins. I’m tired of an America where all the folks I’ve ever loved are dismissed as trash, where people are reduced to something subhuman simply because of where they live. I’m tired of having to explain it. I’m just goddamn tired.
One of my favorite writers, Larry Brown, was once called the “King of White Trash,” and he had enough of a sense of humor to joke about it, to laugh and tell his daughter that if he was the king that effectively crowned her princess. Ultimately, I think the reason Larry was able to shake it off and laugh is because he’d grown used to it, just as we all have. We know we’re something that outsiders will never understand, that it’s noteworthy to see a landscape dotted with trailers and churches. We know we’re something perplexing to those who have never been here. We know that they’ll never be able to see that there is a tremendous beauty in day-to-day survival, that there is sufficient grace in refusing to buckle beneath the weight of this world.
A friend of mine sent me an article recently from The New Yorker titled, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.” It was basically an essay about how some of the richest people in America have been preparing for some sort of societal breakdown. I guffawed at the thought when I read it, not at the idea of America collapsing, but at the idea they think they’ll be the ones to survive. I laughed at the boldness, at the arrogance.
I’ve never been a betting man and the truth is I don’t have much money to lay down, but what I’ll leave you with is this. While all the privileged have been coasting through life so often on the backs of my people, we’ve been surviving. Survival is not new to us. As the man from Baltimore said, Desperation is a way of life. So if the time comes and there are bets to be made, I’d think long and hard about where you slide your chips. If I were you, I’d try to imagine my grandfather waking up off that bed, staring God right dead in His eyes as he’d done a dozen times before, and saying with a sly grin spread across his lonely face, “Sorry, boys, but I ain’t done playing.”
I’d think about all of us in trailers, the lot of us, the trash, and if all I had were a dollar to my name, that’s the bet I’d make.