I’m gritting my teeth as I write this review of the next Edgar Awards nominee for Best First Novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, by David Joy. There are many similarities to the previously reviewed Past Crimes, by Glen Erik Hamilton: the main character is a male anti-hero who has been corrupted by a close relative beginning at a young age (in this case, a father instead of a grandfather); and in each book the protagonist participates in various violent and criminal activities, including murder. The difference between the two books comes with the quality of the writing: David Joy wins, hands down.

David Joy provides a gritty and weak-willed main character in Jacob McNeely, a high school dropout who lives under the thumb of (his) Daddy, the local meth kingpin in a small town in North Carolina. Jacob is hooked on anything (uppers, downers, booze) that provides escape from the gruesome life he sees as his fate. Jacob’s mother lives apart from son and husband in a run-down shack, hooked on meth and not long for this world.

Providing a bright spot in all this mess is Jacob’s former girlfriend, the pure, beautiful, idealized, Maggie Jennings. She has just graduated from high school and is readying to leave the dump of a town behind and head out to college and the wider world. Jacob has broken Maggie’s heart by severing their relationship, but he did it for a noble reason: Love. Maggie is going places and Jacob recognizes he’s a good-for-nothing who will only hold her back if she stays with him.

Daddy gives Jacob a job: make sure the Cabe brothers succeed in “taking care of” Robbie, who has snitched to the law about Daddy’s method of laundering his meth income. The stakes are raised when the brothers botch killing Robbie; he survives the vicious attack but is in a coma. Daddy kills the brothers for their incompetence and leaves a miniature Bible–his calling card–near their bodies. And now Jacob is at the top of Daddy’s shit list.

Jaoob and Maggie manage to get back together for one brief, shining moment, but then Jacob discovers his mother dead from a gunshot, a minature Bible next to her body. Either Daddy’s done it or given her the gun to finish her sorry life. What plays out is the inevitable, bloody reckoning of Daddy’s past and Jacob’s present.

This book is hard to categorize. Although there is plenty of blood and violence, it is not a murder mystery, in fact, it is not a mystery at all, which begs the question why Mystery Writers of America has nominated it. It is not a thriller in the conventional sense; more like an existential foray into the meaning of life as portrayed by the underbelly of society. Jacob is Man Against Himself, writ large. We know from the very start his story will not end well. David Joy displays some serious writing chops. He conveys a strong sense of place, which permeates the story as strongly as any of the characters. For the most part the characters are well-drawn, although Daddy as a psychopath par excellence is over the top. Beautiful Maggie hooking up with Loser Jacob, even wanting him to escape with her when she goes to college, is puzzling at best and hard to believe.

On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a five.