I grew up in southern Missouri, a part of the country notorious in recent years for the epidemic of methamphetamine production and addiction the region has faced. Missouri, though, also contains a lot of natural beauty and a rich history. Daniel Woodrell, a novelist born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks, sets much of his work in this region and eloquently captures these contradictions. He obviously loves the Ozarks, and even as his stories focus on the dark underbelly of rural poverty and crime, they evoke a vivid sense of place and culture. He uses the term “country noir” to describe his work, which fits it perfectly. His characters all inhabit a world set apart from the mainstream culture and often apart from the mainstream economy. Even though they live in a world where poverty, desperation, and violence are common, his characters are so well-realized that they draw you in despite their often extreme circumstances.
The film version of “Winter’s Bone” was my first exposure to Daniel Woodrell, and I sought out the book soon after. It centers on Ree Dolly, a teenager growing up in the Missouri backwoods. Her mother is suffering from mental illness and her father is in and out of jail for cooking meth, so it is up to her to care for her two young siblings. When her father puts their land and house up for bail and disappears, Ree sets out to find him in order to save their home and the wooded property that has been in her family for generations. Her search takes her on a dangerous hunt through a hostile web of extended family and drug connections. It is one of the few cases where I think a movie adaptation lives up to the novel, as both are equally compelling. The movie streamlines the story into a tense thriller, while the novel takes time to meander and develop the relationships between the characters. Ree is a fierce and sympathetic heroine, determined to find out what happened to her father despite the warnings and violence she encounters.
“Give Us a Kiss”, one of Woodrell’s earlier novels, centers on a writer not unlike Woodrell himself. Feeling down on his luck after experiencing downturns in his marriage and his writing career, Doyle Redmond heads home to the Ozarks in his wife’s stolen Volvo to track down his law-evading older brother. He finds him living deep in the woods with plans for a drug operation that promises a big score, and Doyle, being in need of some cash, decides to help out. There’s a hitch in the plan, however, when the Dolly family, enemies of the Redmond’s since Civil War days, start making trouble. Doyle is drawn into a fierce battle of family loyalties and long-held grudges, sinking deeply into a violent conflict he thought he had avoided. While not short on tension or suspense, Doyle’s story is told in an appealing and often quite humorous first-person narrative that makes for a quick and entertaining read.
Woodrell’s most recent book is “The Outlaw Album”, a collection of twelve short stories published in 2011 that continues his literary exploration of people living on the fringes of society. The characters are all living hardscrabble lives in the Ozarks but each face their own unique source of inner turmoil. They range from a man who has murdered his neighbor for killing his wife’s beloved pet, a Vietnam veteran coming to terms with killing another veteran in self-defense, to a grieving father of a missing daughter who can’t shake his suspicion that one of his fellow townspeople must be responsible for her disappearance. Whatever their specific situations, the characters are portrayed as having an immense capacity for both violence and tenderness. This duality makes the stories very poignant and sometimes darkly humorous as well.
These works by Woodrell paint a striking picture of rural Missouri and of self-reliant people facing the challenges of high poverty rates, social isolation, and limited opportunity. While he does focus on one grim slice of Missouri life, his characters ring true. Their manner of speaking, their hardships, and their culture remind me of people I have known in my own life. Despite the dark themes, the vulnerability of the characters and Woodrell’s unique poetic style render his stories compelling, entertaining, and often very moving.