Hillbilly Noir

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

Woodrell remembers St. Charles' pre-casino, pre-sprawl days fondly, despite its notorious clans of riverside bums and his family's lean times. "I found my mom's diary once — when I was an adult — from those years. She was just constantly worrying about shoes and all that stuff. 'Kids need shoes, school's gonna start in a month. We got nuthin'."

In the late '60s the family shipped off to Overland Park, Kansas. Woodrell, though, couldn't bear the suburbs and, just days after his seventeenth birthday, dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Sent to the jungles of Guam at the height of the Vietnam War, he spent most of this time tripping on acid and smoking hash. "You could go up on the barracks rooftops and get just about anything," he remembers. Caught with drugs, he was discharged after less than two years of service for "pronounced antisocial tendencies."

Shipped back to Kansas, he enrolled and then dropped out of Fort Hays State University, opting instead to hitchhike across the country with friends and sell bricks of pot to sustain himself. At 27, he at last earned his B.A. from Kansas University, where he won a few short-story contests and grew serious about literature.

Woodrell's wife, Katie Estill, will have her second novel 
published early next year by St. Martin's Press.
Woodrell's wife, Katie Estill, will have her second novel published early next year by St. Martin's Press.
Ozarkers "R" Us: Woodrell has written about the Civil War 
and Party Cove, but he prefers the rural poor for his 
Ozarkers "R" Us: Woodrell has written about the Civil War and Party Cove, but he prefers the rural poor for his subjects.

Acceptance to the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa should have been his big break, but he quickly soured on the school. Woodrell says his failure to assimilate had less to do with his literary prowess than his unwillingness to accept his professors' bourgeoisie attitudes and misuse of their positions.

"I said I'm never going to be in a position where a bunch of faculty dicks get to decide if I eat or not," he says. "I'll go with crime fiction or take it to the street and provide for myself. And then, if something else happens, it'll be the way I want it to happen. But I ain't never letting those guys judge me."

In Woodrell's novels, characters with money or power are usually aloof and corrupt, while have-nots possess superior self-awareness despite often-questionable judgment. "Way past nightfall I flicked the TV on and sat in the squeaky rocker," narrates lovable hillbilly Sammy Barlach in Woodrell's 1998 novel, Tomato Red. "Some show played, kids who drive Porsches to high school and eat in sit-down restaurants on their own, but there's this emptiness in them, apparently bigger than the beach. They were folks you'd like to meet sometime and leave in a car trunk at the airport."

"We've all had thoughts like that," Woodrell says, chuckling.

In the year spent crafting Winter's Bone, Woodrell chiseled every ounce of flab off the novel's 193 pages, prompting the Tampa Tribune's Kathy L. Greenberg to observe, "It reads more like poetry than prose." Added the New York Times' David Bowman: "His Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests this novel will speak to readers as long as there are readers, and as long as violence is practiced more often than hope or language."

In Winter's Bone Woodrell chronicles the frailties and grotesqueries of the human condition, and turns icy landscapes and cloudbursts into menacing characters. "Clouds looked to be splitting on distant peaks," he writes, "dark rolling bolts torn around the mountaintops to patch the blue sky with grim. Frosty wet began to fall, not as flakes nor rain but as tiny white wads that burst as drops landing and froze a sudden glaze atop the snow."

Says Woodrell: "I try to follow the Japanese art of what they call in their painting 'follow the brush' — to follow your natural instincts in telling the story, letting it connect itself. To have too artful, too careful of a structure is actually a contrivance. Scenes twenty years ago I would have put in, now I glide right over. I like what I'm getting out of that."

Woodrell's displays a keen ear for the linguistic quirks of the Ozarks, where grated Parmesan is called "sprinkle cheese," a first name is one's "front name," the dining-room table is the "eating table," and if one's "parts are gathered," sanity prevails.

Not all critics, meanwhile, have been kind to Woodrell. A Washington Post review of Winter's Bone didn't buy into the writer's heroic characterization of Ree Dolly. Wrote Carolyn See: "In a world of ignorant, antisocial savages, how did Ree turn out to be some kind of rustic Joan of Arc?"

"That review was written by a woman who wouldn't know those people if they dropped out of the sky on top of her," complains Woodrell fan and famed crime novelist George Pelecanos. "I totally discount that, but it brings up a good point. Most people reviewing books don't know what he's writing about. They see [his characters] as losers, but I don't, and I don't think Dan does either."

Woodrell says critics often misunderstand his subjects. "The American concept of things is that you're always striving upwards. What they're not getting is that there are a lot of people from the underclass who don't want to be middle class. They don't want anything to do with it."

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