Tuesday, January 15, 2013

(No.226) Daniel Woodrell: the least known major novelist?


"Daniel Woodrell: the least known major American novelist?"

by Alastair Rickard

I have never seen the American novelist Daniel Woodrell interviewed on an arts show or indeed any program. Perhaps it is because he lives in the Ozarks and does not seek publicity. Dennis Lehane, the bestselling novelist, has called Woodrell "the least known major writer in the country". In an Esquire review he was referred to as "the best regarded obscure novelist in America".

Woodrell has been writing published novels since the mid-1980s but he's been far from prolific. He was sick for several years and has written only eight novels so far. Still, while this number compares favourably with the output over decades  of, say,  William Styron who produced five novels during his life (he spent six years writing "Sophie's Choice: A Memory"), it puts Woodrell in a very different category than most of today's bestselling American novelists.

I can't recall where or when I first picked up one of Woodrell's novels but I do remember why. Its subject involved a particular historical interest of mine: the savage guerilla activity in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere during the American civil war.

The novel, his second, was titled "Woe To Live On" (1987) and featured young southern men who joined ruthless pro-Confederacy guerilla gangs led by men like William Clarke Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson. It is great historical fiction. Unlike Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers, who emerged from such activity into post-war banditry and murder, the leading characters in Woodrell's tale are not all actual or even borderline psychopaths.

Jesse James's popular image in American culture to this day is (like Wyatt Earp's) laughably inaccurate and was made even more mythical and false than Earp's by contemporary as well as subsequent writers. Jesse James came to his full pathological maturity in exactly the sort of times Woodrell describes so effectively in "Woe To Live On".

The novel was made into a movie in 1999 with the title "Ride With The Devil" directed by the talented Ang Lee and is an intermittently inspired film  -- but Woodrell's novel is superior to the movie. The novel was reissued by the publisher under the movie's title "Ride With The Devil". 

Three of Woodrells' first four novels featured the members of the Shade family living in a fictional mid-sized southern city he called St.Bruno, located somewhere not all that far from New Orleans. The initial two novels in the series had as a particular focus the life of one of the three Shade sons, Rene, a former boxer turned cop. In fact Woodrell wrote "Woe To Live On" after the first of the trio set in St. Bruno.

The novels "Under the Bright Lights", "Muscle For the Wing" and " The Ones You Do" have now been republished in one volume entitled "The Bayou Trilogy" (2011). When originally published the second and third novels of this fine trilogy were commercially unsuccessful.

The books convey so effectively the dark side of a Louisiana city in the 1980s and 90s that they prompted the modern master of Los Angeles noir fiction James Elroy to call Woodrell the "bayou Elmore Leonard", high praise indeed for any novelist setting out to create believable noir crime fiction. Woodrell himself even dubbed one of his novels "country noir". His own favourite among the Bayou Trilogy  is "The Ones You Do" and it may soon be made into a movie.

Daniel Woodrell, born in Missouri in 1953, left the 'bayou' novels and switched location to the Ozarks where he had been born and to which he returned after a varied life. He and his wife, novelist Katie Estill, live in the Ozarks in West Plain, Missouri. His time away from his own part of the country started with  a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps in which he enlisted when he was 17 and from which he was discharged for drug use after eighteen months.

His most recent novel Winter's Bone (2006) was set in the Ozarks and was made into a movie directed by Debra Granik. The movie was widely acclaimed and favourably reviewed by critics. The Woodrell novel on which it was based was left out of attendant awards.

In his life as well as certain aspects of his writing Woodrell reminds me of another American novelist, Charles Willeford, who died in 1988 and is probably better known now than when he was alive. I reviewed the four novels Willeford wrote featuring Miami detective Hoke Moseley (RickardsRead.com, "Charles Willeford & Hoke Moseley", Column No. 210 posted Aug.6, 2012).

Perhaps Willeford's best writing came in his two wonderfully interesting volumes of autobiography: "I Was Looking For A Street" (1988) and "Something About A Soldier" (1986). It is a great loss that Willeford died before he could add at least  one more volume about his own fascinating life.

Daniel Woodrell, like some other highly individualistic American novelists, refuses to change his approach to writing. Referring to the switch to the Ozarks as a setting for his novels Woodrell says that "I am very well aware of how disinterested the country as a whole is in places like this, so I knew it would mean taking a vow of poverty."

His writing style has been described as "regional", "southern", "gothic". He rejects these categories. He says that he views "all labels as a form of prejudice -- so said Chekhov, and, as usual, he knew what he was talking about ... they are all terms meant to segregate us from a true evaluation -- no need for the literary world to even look at the work, since you are sub-literary by category, and the categories are very dumbly applied in many cases."

As with Willeford's Hoke Moseley series, I very much enjoyed the novels making up Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy but also his other work. His forthcoming novel, also set in the Ozarks, is titled "The Maid's Version".

Whether Woodrell is or isn't the least known major American novelist he is certainly a very talented writer whose novels and short stories will continue to be read.

Books by Daniel Woodrell (all in print):

1. Under the Bright Lights (1986)
2. Muscle For The Wing (1988) 
3. The Ones You Do (1992)
 --   These three novels reissued in one volume as The Bayou Trilogy in 2011
4. Woe To Live On (1987) [reissued in 2011 under the title Ride With The Devil]
5. Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir (1996)
6. Tomato Red (1998)
7. The Death of Sweet Mister (2001)
8. Winter's Bone (2006)
9  (short stories) The Outlaw Album (2011)

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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