The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

Books Reviews
The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

Okay, Daniel Woodrell of West Plains, Miss., has just been elevated by Winter’s Bone and Sundance and the Oscars and the general high opinions of critics everywhere into the stratosphere of Great American Novelists, Gritty Division. The buzz, cicadas on a summer night, is deafening. It should be. Woodrell single-handedly generated a new genre—country noir—with his Ozarks-based crime stories. Sure enough, the usual glowing comparisons to Chandler, Faulkner, Mosley, Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy have all been sung. He’s a “backcountry Shakespeare,” opines the LA Times. He’s “deeply atmospheric and oozing with the mojo of the swamp,” says the Chicago Tribune. Even the New York Times, tragically grammatically correct and way uncool, gets on the bus: “The colorful characters and piquant tongues in which they speak really have us swooning…” [I mean, ‘Piquant tongues in which they speak?’ Dang.]

Anyway, must be kinda arch being the newly-elevated wunderkind literary Next Big Thang when your first novel came out in 1986.

That’s right. Overnight sensation Woodrell’s been writing for 25 years, producing eight books. Ang Lee made the first movie of Woodrell’s 1987 Civil War novel Woe to Live On in ’99, and the director called it Ride With the Devil. The film died an untimely marketing-deprived gutless-studio death after a three-day domestic release. Ouch. So up until Debra Granik’s Academy Award for Winter’s Bone last year, Woodrell labored away in the middle of Samuel Clemens country without attracting much of an audience, numbers-wise, for decades.

But Dan’l’s in tall cornsilk now.

Mulholland Books, the Little, Brown publishing imprint, has just re-issued three of Woodrell’s early novels—Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do—as a terrific, hernia-inducing triple play called The Bayou Trilogy. These three novels, linked by character and setting, make up one jumbo-sized package that showcases Woodrell’s early work, which hardly anyone bought the first time around. I haven’t delighted as much in pure writing chops for quite a while—Woodrell deserves the attention he’s getting, so say hallelujah, can I get a Amen, it’s about time.

In publishing, this is how you know you’ve gotten their attention—when the publisher calls and says “We want to re-issue your earlier work.”

Which just goes to show you, despite Woodrell’s class-based rural violence, lawlessness and general hick-takes-a-lickin’-and-keeps-on-tickin’ shtick, justice can still be had in these parts. This guy can really write. Sample: “Saint Brunians were imbued with an unfriendly blend of ancestral pride, selfish toughness, and purposeful ignorance that served to produce succeeding generations of only slightly less narrow views than the generations that laid the bricks that paved the streets.”

Or: “Wanda Bone Bouvier had that thing that makes a hound leap against his cage. It was a quality that was partly a bonus from nature and partly learned from cheesecake calendars and Tanya Tucker albums. Wanda had realized early on that her body was a taunt that sent would-be Romeos off on quests for Love Oil and ceiling mirrors and nerve.”

In Woodrell World, you hear a mocking, hard intelligence laid right up next to a deeply proud and stubborn know-nothingness that’s chilling, funny and illuminating all at once. Even his ruminative descriptive sentences sizzle and spew heat and power: “Jewel wondered what it was that cities put over on folks that made them want to spend money to watch strangers have real good times.” “He was foul and lean, junk-food raised and opposed to dentistry judging by his greening teeth.” “The archaic angle of his sideburns and the dead-end-kid swoop of his long brown hair raised some upfront doubts about his good citizenship that his face did nothing to allay.” Woodrell writes like a combat flare—a harsh, wavering white phosphorus light, blazing with intensity and glare, ready to burn right through tissue and bone if it gets too close.

And like so many of our greatest novelists, Daniel Woodrell writes about class. He’s deeply concerned with what class does to us, how it works and what it produces. His subject is the corrosive impact of the consciousness of class on the rural poor. But this dang sure ain’t no sociological treatise—Thorsten Veblen never wrote like this. A Woodrell novel could be sung by Springsteen or Woody Guthrie, and you’d recognize the lyrics and the characters right away. They’re singing about the poetry of loss and the lonely train whistle at the end of human forbearance and dignity.

I started reading Woodrell years ago [us critics—always ahead of the curve, right?] and tried to convince several friends to do the same, but initially got few takers. (“Want to make an agent cry?” Woodrell once said, “Tell him you’re going to write stories set in the Ozarks.”) For a couple of decades, he sent his sobbing agent these ultra-hard-boiled rural fictions, not really mysteries but deep-fried socially-aware crime-and-not-much-punishment stories. His audience built slowly, a few critics discovered him, and a couple of filmmakers with good ears loved his dialogue, characterization and filmic level of unblinking detail. In fact, when you read his early work—The Bayou Trilogy contains his first, second and fourth novels—it may remind you, in its detail-driven and dialogue-specific hyperrealism, of Thomas McGuane and Dashiell Hammett. Yup, I know, high praise, but earned:

“Her husband stood in the middle of the room, under the skylight with his back to the door. His right arm was raised in an awkward position: the elbow level with his shoulder, his forearm bent stiffly toward his head. Even as she divined the import of the pose, and screamed ‘Dudley!’ the air vibrated with the force of the explosion. Dudley Morey rocked slowly, once forward, once backward, and then crumpled face down upon the bare floor.” (Dashiell Hammett, “The Joke on Eloise Morey,” H.L. Mencken’s Smart Set Magazine, 1923)

“When Lunch was shoved again he fell, and while down he slid the derringer from his boot. ‘I’m scared,’ he said, ‘I’d like to pray.’ And as Tiny Baby swaggered toward him, smirking, he raised the derringer and shot the big man, catching him in the throat. Tiny Baby staggered back into the light, blood spraying from his neck. The pistol fell from his hands, and he sunk to his knees… Then he put the derringer at Tiny Baby’s temple and pulled the trigger. The big man dropped, face down to the gravel.” (Daniel Woodrell, The Ones You Do, 1992)

Dashiell and Daniel mine the same violent American ore. Woodrell echoes Hammett’s celebrated meticulous descriptions, precise detail and what the cyberpunk author and critic William Gibson calls “superspecificity.” Gibson on Hammett: “I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all this ordinary stuff until it was different—like American naturalism but cranked up very intense, almost surreal.”

And no, it’s not easy to write this way, either. When a writer uses superspecificity, the tendency is to pile on the detailed descriptions. That can lard the book up with distractions, and make the plot and pacing suffer. To maintain a sense of propulsive narrative drive, the details have to be carefully selected and very sparingly used. In other words, writing like this takes exquisite taste and judgment. Woodrell’s writing has the harsh beauty of the backwoods, coupled with jangling, unexpected word and phrase choice in every sentence. Action never gets halted by the elegiac word choice, and vice versa. You can read Woodrell as a thriller writer; or you can read him as a literary stylist. That’s a high mountain trail with steep cliffs on both sides, but he walks it like a Sherpa.

A few of our greatest crime and mystery novelists have inherited Hammett’s intense superspecificity—Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley. And now Woodrell has learned it well, in an amped-up, half-lidded, unpredictably dangerous rural way. He focuses at a remarkable depth-of-field, describing background and foreground in high-contrast sharpness. Woodrell’s photorealistic details are all drenched in a unique part of the country, unexplored since Twain, so they’re new, something we’ve rarely encountered. He uses the modern Ozarks as a character—hard, meth-cranky and opaque—so the details of the landscape in his books work on us in new ways. That’s what the best writers do—build delight and artistic beauty by combining a completely unique setting and characters readers haven’t encountered. I’m convinced that in the process they create new neural pathways for us, and that’s where we get the mystical sense of delight they create.

Woodrell has made his villains and heroes much more alike than different, too. A terrific mystery/thriller/crime story requires a truly dark and believably creepy antagonist—witness Burke’s memorably deranged and epically unhinged villains down in his own Louisiana bayous.

But Woodrell has moved beyond that standard mystery dichotomy by drawing his protagonists much closer in moral tone and character to his antagonists. The family he depicts in the troika of novels that make up The Bayou Trilogy—the Shade clan, of St. Bruno—gives the grey moral tones the last name suggests to everyone, from the pool-hustler alcoholic father to the boxer-turned-police-detective son to the not-so-honest bar-owner brother. It’s just one of the qualities that make Daniel Woodrell’s dead serious work cross over from thriller/crime story territory into beautifully written literary fiction.

The family saga The Bayou Trilogy traces isn’t pretty or proper. These are Southern novels, a little Faulknerian and gothic, picaresque in a way that veers jaggedly from funny to furious on the same page. Woodrell likes to create characters that aren’t initially sympathetic, and then find ways to slowly reveal backstory and character development that gradually build your identification and sympathy. After a while, that technique pulls readers gravitationally into the stories and starts to generate a deep understanding of the culture and society that breeds these delightfully or dangerously crazy folk.

Social realism—that big intersection between fact and fiction—can really throw a punch when it gets each element right, and The Bayou Trilogy accomplishes that rare achievement. Like watching a documentary that’s also powerfully entertaining and engaging, The Bayou Trilogy, or any of the rest of Woodrell’s novels, will beckon you into the closed world of the Ozarks and give you a sense of who lives there and what makes them human … even with their devils.

David Langness is a writer, journalist and literary critic who lives in the Bay Area in Northern California.

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