Hillbilly Noir

The literary world is abuzz over Daniel Woodrell, bard of the Ozarks.

Authors of New York Times Notable Books aren't typically found in West Plains, Missouri, a town of about 11,000 residents pinned deep into the "bull's-eye heart of the Ozarks," as Daniel Woodrell likes to put it. As in other parts of this grizzled Missouri backwater, West Plains' toothless moonshiners have been largely replaced by half-crazed crank cooks — although its poverty and isolation lingers on.

Eleven years ago Woodrell returned for good to his birthplace, which is within spitting distance of the Arkansas state line. He and his wife, novelist Katie Estill, bought a house near the historic town square for $26,000 — the equivalent of about a year-and-a-half's rent at their previous residence in San Francisco.

Their century-old home was once surrounded on both sides by meth dealers, says Woodrell, a sturdy, balding man with an oversize goatee. "I knew the one guy on the one side of me, all jail-tattooed and everything. I talked to him a lot. We had beers and stuff. The other guy was fucking scum. Used to beat the shit out of his wife and everything."

EDWARD BIAMONTE
EDWARD BIAMONTE

Other than growing and/or manufacturing dope, there's not much decent-paying work available in these parts, not since the stockyards and shoe and cheese factories closed years back. The poverty rate in surrounding Howell County is 50 percent higher than in the rest of Missouri.

It's more than a cheap mortgage that endears the Ozarks to the 53-year-old writer, a man who, the West Plains Daily Quill recently noted, "has wrote eight novels." After years of laboring in relative obscurity, Woodrell has achieved literary acclaim with the vivid, scorching prose he renders about a region he knows so intimately.

The Independent in London recently hailed Woodrell as "one of the best-kept secrets in American literature ." The Philadelphia Inquirer called him "one of the most acclaimed novelists in America."

The Ozarks' hills and hollers have clearly emerged as Woodrell's harsh fictional world, and his name is as closely tied to the locale as Saul Bellow's was to Chicago, William Faulkner's to Mississippi and John Steinbeck's to California's Salinas Valley.

One finds in Woodrell's writing his fascination with the Ozarks, its desperados and their desperate landscape. This, from his 1996 novel, Give Us a Kiss: "A hundred miles south or so I cut east and rolled into the Ozarks region, which is the perfect flip side to a metroplex. It's all meadows and hills, trees and red, rocky dirt. The houses show signs of having been built by different generations with different notions of architecture, but all run together to make single rambling homes where the different wings appear almost to have been built as refutations of previous wings. You start seeing chickens in the yards and huge gardens and swing chairs on porches and various vehicles that have rusted so successfully into the landscape as to appear indigenous."

With roots here dating back to the Civil War, Woodrell plucks his desolate characters from family albums, feeding them navy beans with hambone over cornbread, learning 'em to kill and skin up a squirrel, just like his old granddaddy taught him.

Woodrell assiduously avoids the literary circuit and remains largely anonymous in town, although some folks did congratulate him when his book, Woe to Live On, became a film in 1999, the Ang Lee-directed Ride with the Devil. For years he never mentioned he went to college. That's because, says Woodrell, affecting a hillbilly twang, "People would immediately say, 'Well, Professor...' Then I realized I'm tired of doing that. If they can't hack it that I went to college, then too freaking bad."

Eschewing cell phones, Woodrell deliberately makes himself difficult to reach. He spends his mornings at the keyboard before a window frame lined with photos of his literary inspirations — James Agee, Derek Walcott and Yasunari Kawabata. In the afternoons he takes long walks around town, his preferred form of exercise now that he stopped going to the local gym, where weightlifters played the head-banging music too loud. Afternoons might find him home sipping tea with his wife as the pair discuss their latest works.

Woodrell's literary renown peaked with the August publication of Winter's Bone, his most lavishly praised book to date. Australia's Canberra Times called it "as beautiful and harsh as an Appalachian folk song."

Its unforgettable heroine is Ree Dolly, "brunette and 16, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes." She's been left in charge of her two younger brothers by a prescription-pill-addled mother and a daddy who has skipped bail on charges of running a crystal-meth lab. If he doesn't show up for his court date, the Dollys will lose their house.

Jessup, her papa, is a volcanic soul, a "broken-faced, furtive man," writes Woodrell, "given to uttering quick pleading promises that made it easier for him to walk out the door and be gone, or come back inside and be forgiven."

To find her fugitive father, the indomitable Ree solicits help from her disparate family, some with names like Thump Milton and Uncle Teardrop. It is an inbred clan of gun-toting, drug-using miscreants who hold deep-seated grudges against anyone wearing a badge.

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