Hillbilly Noir

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

Woodrell harbored a similarly rebellious attitude during his years of obscurity. Upon graduation from the Writers' Workshop, he and Katie Estill plunged into an austere lifestyle, refusing to borrow money from their parents and even opting against having children.

"I really didn't want kids because I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew it was going to be hard enough," Woodrell says.

Estill, whose second book, Dahlia's Gone, will be published by St. Martin's Press early next year, briefly took a teaching job, but Woodrell adamantly refused "square" work, committing himself to what he saw as Hemingway's romantic vision of the writer's dedicated lifestyle.


He didn't publish a novel for ten years. The young couple moved from Cleveland to Arkansas to San Francisco, dodging bill collectors by not leaving forwarding addresses. Woodrell's agent even had trouble tracking him down in 1985 after selling his first novel, Under the Bright Lights, a crime piece starring the cops-and-robbers kinfolk of a Louisiana family.

Unfortunately, the book didn't sell, nor did its sequels, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do. Woodrell's Civil War period piece, Woe to Live On, also landed on bookstore shelves with a silent thud.

He came into his own with Give Us a Kiss, a saucy "country noir" set in West Table, Missouri, a stand-in for West Plains. Published in 1996, shortly after Woodrell's hometown return from San Francisco, the book trails underappreciated novelist Doyle Redmond — on his return from the Bay Area. Though the main characters in Woodrell's later novels are rednecks and hillbillies, Give Us a Kiss is practically autobiographical — that is, except for the parts where Redmond guns downs his rivals and beds the local jailbait.

At times, Woodrell seems to debate with himself on the novel's pages, such as the scene where Redmond discusses his literary future with his older brother Smoke while they harvest marijuana plants:

"You need a hit, don't you."

"I need a hook. It takes a hook to get a hit. A publicity hook, I mean."

"I don't want no part of that," Smoke said. "Publicity."

"Yeah, but I need it."

"You only just think you need it."

Though Give Us a Kiss also failed to find an audience, it earned a rave blurb from revered writer Annie Proulx. Around the same time, Woodrell saw a financial windfall when Ang Lee optioned Woe to Live On. "That kept the wolf from our door for a couple years," he says, adding that it permitted him the peace to craft the Ozarks-set novels Tomato Red, The Death to Sweet Mister and Winter's Bone.

Woodrell has no real contemporaries in American literature, says Ozarks novelist and University of Arkansas art history professor Donald Harington.

"Although his fiction has been compared to Raymond Chandler's, Cormac McCarthy's, and Charles Frazier's, there is no close, identifiable resemblance," Harington says. "He has invented his own tradition and is the sole inhabitant of it. He is actually closer to the photographer Shelby Lee Adams than to any novelist."

"His characters experience small victories, that might only be temporary," says Pelecanos. "Redemption can even come in death — that's the black heart of the real noir."

The topography here, this is what I think of when I think of the Ozarks," says Woodrell as he pilots north from Collinsville. It's a mid-autumn afternoon and he gingerly navigates the rolling hills crowded by oaks and maples, their leaves in full painter's glory. He points down a rural road off to his left and announces, "This friend of mine lives right over there, surrounded by Collinses and shit. The Collinses shot his dog. It was eatin' guineas."

He pulls off the road alongside a crystal-clear creek, one that calls to mind the setting of The Death of Sweet Mister's opening scene, in which thirteen-year-old protagonist Shuggie is instructed by Red — his mother's abusive boyfriend — to spray-paint his truck blue so the cops don't recognize it.

Perhaps Woodrell once saw himself in the insecure, overweight Shuggie, or in the angry, paranoid Red, but today he could hardly be more comfortable in his own skin. Normally an efficient conversationalist, he now yammers at length about an article on Party Cove he wrote for GQ, and the movie Brokeback Mountain (based on Proulx's short story), which he recently saw for the first time. "They were both virgins in that tent, but, man, they sure figured it out pretty quickly. There was no fumbling around, boy!"

And he's downright buzzing from a recent phone conversation with Anjelica Huston, who is making Give Us a Kiss into a film. "It's interesting that she picked that one, because it's a pretty raunchy book," he notes. "She's royalty, let's face it. She wasn't hard to talk to at all." Big-screen versions of The Death of Sweet Mister and Winter's Bone are also on the way, though details are few.

It is pure serendipity, he says, that his writing is finally paying off. "The publishers don't pay that much to guys like me, and I realized a long time ago that what I really needed was a symbiotic relationship with film. I didn't know how to make it happen, and I didn't make it happen. It happened on its own."

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