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Discovering Daniel Woodrell

In the May 1, 2019, Booklist, I wrote the first of what I promised would be a series of pieces about my 40 years of reading and reviewing crime fiction for Booklist. The second installment of that proposed series is arriving a bit later than planned, but here it is. I’m moving on to the 1990s this time and to what I still consider to be one of the highlights of my career as a reviewer: discovering Daniel Woodrell. Today’s readers probably know Woodrell mainly from Winter’s Bone (the wonderful 2006 novel that spawned the equally wonderful movie version, which launched the film career of Jennifer Lawrence), but I go back further than that with Woodrell, all the way back to his 1992 novel The Ones You Do, the third in the Bayou Trilogy, set in corruption-rife St. Bruno, Louisiana, and starring police detective Rene Shade, a world-weary cop who knows his way around both sides of the tracks.

The first two installments in the series, Under the Bright Lights and Muscle for the Wing, are mainstream hard-boiled novels, and Rene is a thoroughly appealing hero in the Chandlerian mode, comfortable with St. Bruno’s crisply evoked seediness but eager to dethrone the city’s crime boss. With The Ones You Do, however, it became immediately apparent that Woodrell had no intention to stay within familiar genre conventions. The Ones You Do remains set in St. Bruno, but this time Rene shares the lead with John X. Shade, his father, who returns to the city on the run and finds himself taking stock of his 60-odd years of drinking, gambling, lovemaking, and trying with little success to stay out of trouble. “My liver ain’t turnin’ out to be quite the organ I’d hoped for,” John X. muses, and neither have his hands, now too shaky to hold his beloved Balabuska pool cue. While awaiting a showdown with a psychotic lowlife called Lunch Pumphrey, who’s operating on the mistaken notion that Shade stole $40,000 from him, John X. hangs at the smoke-filled Catfish Bar, home to “guys in shirtsleeves and tattoos arguing about football, romance, and burglary.” This isn’t really a crime novel, though the criminal world is its milieu; rather, it’s a melancholy ode to living for the pleasures of the moment. John X.’s valedictory address, both celebratory and mournful, captures perfectly the double-edged nature of the carpe diem sword.

I like to think that The Ones You Do convinced Woodrell that his real interest was in exploring more characters like John X.—unconventional folks with hardscrabble histories but no shortage of heart. To find those characters, he moved from the Bayou to his own stomping grounds, the Ozarks, and there he, in effect, invented a new subgenre. “Country noir” has become a commonplace way of describing a certain kind of crime fiction, but many readers probably don’t realize that the phrase was coined by Woodrell, who used it as a subtitle for his 1996 novel,  Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, the book that started a string of three more Woodrell country noirs that remain a high-water mark not only in my own personal reading, but also in the history of crime fiction.

“Take Elmore Leonard’s grit, Barry Gifford’s wild heart, James Crumley’s mean streak, and—stay with me here—a wisp of Truman Capote’s lyricism, and you’re ready to visit the Ozarks, Woodrell style.”

Give Us a Kiss introduced the feuding Redmond and Dolly families, the McCoys and Hatfields of the Ozarks. “It’s a strange, powerful bloodline poetry, I guess, but there’s something so potent to us Redmonds about bustin’ laws together, as a family.” So says Doyle Redmond, the maverick college boy of the family, who returns to his roots with gusto when he agrees to help his infamous brother Smoke (think Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road) with the season’s marijuana harvest. Unfortunately, the Dolly clan, also dirt farmers with a strong interest in bustin’ laws as a family, get in the way of the Redmonds’ plans. “Dirt farmers,” Woodrell tells us, “have no quit in them.” Neither do novelists determined to celebrate the special mix of poetry, stubbornness, humanity, and just-plain meanness in the souls of a few Ozark hill folk.

The three novels that follow Give Us a Kiss—Tomato Red (1998), The Death of Sweet Mister (2001), and Winter’s Bone (2006)—take us even still deeper into the heart of country noir, where the fuses are short, and the tragedies, like the thunderstorms, are just waiting to happen. Woodrell’s prose mixes tough and tender so thoroughly yet so delicately that we never taste even a hint of false bravado, on the one hand, or sentimentality, on the other. It’s almost impossible for me to pick a favorite among these three books, all of which are about as close to being word perfect as a book can be, but since I’m focused on the 1990s, I’ll talk about Tomato Red.

“Her head looked like an heirloom tomato after a rough, scrubbing cloudburst. If ever I could possess a ‘65 Mustang, four-speed rag top, I’d want it to be the color of her hair.” That’s Sammy Barlach, a country boy with a nose for trouble and a rap sheet to match, describing Jamalee Merridew, who thinks she’s found the way out of Venus Holler, the low-life side of West Table, Missouri. Jamalee and her brother, Jason, who just may be the prettiest human, man or woman, in the Ozarks, want out of town fast (“This map starts to get really interesting about a state and a half from here”), but Jason doesn’t seem to have the makings of a stud-for-hire (at least not if women are involved), so Jam comes up with Plan B: get Sammy to steal something from someone. Sammy’s along for the ride, content to do his losing in as many different ways as possible. Nobody gets just what they want, of course, but everybody gets something a little different than what they expect, even Sammy, who always expects the worst.

I concluded my Booklist review of Tomato Red with this sentence: Take Elmore Leonard’s grit, Barry Gifford’s wild heart, James Crumley’s mean streak, and—stay with me here—a wisp of Truman Capote’s lyricism, and you’re ready to visit the Ozarks, Woodrell style. It’s been more than 20 years since I wrote those words, and I haven’t changed my mind in the slightest.



About the Author:

After more than 30 years at Booklist, editor and publisher Bill Ott continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and still delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers. Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Bill.

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