Hillbilly Noir

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

Daniel Woodrell

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."

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.

Woodrell says he based the hard-boiled Dolly kin on the West Plains Collins family, who, like the Dollys, share a tangled family tree. The West Plains phone book lists 250 Collinses, many of them inhabiting a stretch of Highway 14 unofficially named Collinsville. It is a place of charred remains of shacks consumed by methamphetamine lab fires, of dilapidated single-wides with guinea hens dithering out front. Here, four-wheelers double as beer-drinking stools.

"Even a lot of realtors will tell you, 'Don't buy out here,'" says Woodrell.

The writer provides a tour of the area from behind the wheel of his Ford Taurus, whizzing past down-at-the heel dwellings without stopping. With a smile, he recalls the time he spent helping a group of Hollywood producers scout locations for an upcoming film based on Winter's Bone. They approached a Collinsville resident who, as Woodrell tells it, appeared stoned to the gills.

"He fired two shots in the air," remembers Woodrell. "And his wife came out and said, 'You know, he's getting upset with y'all.' I think it was a .22. It makes a nice pop. You get the message."

Woodrell is asked constantly by journalists why he doesn't head for, say, New York City, where he might find more intellectual companionship.

"I've lived in circumstances surrounded by artists and writers," he explains, "and it's kinda good, but I don't like sitting around talking about the business all the time, or complaining about someone who's had a hit. Writers are pretty big crybabies. What really captivated me is a biography of Cézanne who, like me, was not much of a social butterfly: 'I don't have to hang around Paris. I'm going to go back and hear my own thoughts, and do my thing.' And I took that to heart."

Woodrell couldn't be more removed from the elitist atmosphere he encountered in graduate school at the University of Iowa. "There's a whole lot of sucking and fucking to get ahead in the writing racket up there," he says. "I came out very angry. The truth is, I found the morality of the place repugnant."

During his first year, Woodrell ranked at the bottom of the class, he says, and one of the school's chief administrators asked him to leave. "He said I was fat and arrogant and was unfit to be put in front of a classroom. I wasn't really fat, either."

Leaving his professors' deconstructionist ideas about literature behind, he adopted crime as a plot vehicle while populating his novels with impoverished, down-on-their-luck Ozarkers as central characters. The realism of his taut prose is informed by the near-poverty he experienced much of his life.

"Writing about poor people or the left out, overlooked people has been my calling, whenever I don't indulge in fantasies of being some other sort of more conventionally acceptable writer," says Woodrell. "My juice only flows with the qualities I want when I do as I am 'called' to do. It's a deep and true thing."

A few miles south of West Plains, Woodrell's English ancestors lie six feet beneath the reddish earth at Home Land Cemetery. They arrived in the Arkansas Ozarks by way of Kentucky and Tennessee before the Civil War and came to West Plains not too much later — perhaps, Woodrell speculates, lured by free homesteads.

Decaying flowers litter the graveyard, where an entire wing is devoted to the Woodrells. Some of the faded tombstones spell the family name with one 'L,' others with two. As Woodrell trudges from one plot to the next, he ticks off what led them here: "Alcoholic. Alcoholic. Alcoholic. Alcoholic."

His family's tragic history once filled him with dread about his own future. "One of the reasons I wasn't sure that I wanted to live here is I know all my family stories, and a lot of them are sad, man," Woodrell says. "People just didn't really get to find what they really wanted to find, because circumstances didn't allow much deviation. I know it's brightened up, people may not feel that way, but emotionally I sometimes get that feeling of the hardscrabble past and all of that."

His paternal grandmother was an illiterate maid whose dipsomaniac husband abandoned the family. Woodrell's father, a functioning alcoholic who died in 1993, moved his family to St. Charles when Woodrell was a year old to take a job as a metal salesman and attend night school.

"I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and he's sitting there with his cans of beer doing his homework from Washington U. until two in the morning," recalls Woodrell. "Then he gets up and drives to St. Louis to sell metal all day. Comes home, has a few drinks and a bite, goes to night school. I couldn't do it."

As a child Woodrell couldn't digest food properly and nearly died from intestinal problems. The condition kept him indoors, giving him ample time to read the Mark Twain books his mother insisted upon. Later, he discovered Nelson Algren — he was lured by the books' "sexy covers," he says. He credits St. Charles' public schools for igniting his literary ambitions. "I don't wanna knock [the Ozarks], but the emphasis on education here is not the same as in those old German towns you got around St. Louis."

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.

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."

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."

In any case, his financial windfall poses a certain dilemma. "If you're not careful it starts to look kinda silly to stay where we're at, because we really don't have to anymore. We have difficulty deciding if we want another adventure moving a distance, or if we're just looking for a larger place here."

Woodrell promises his next book will also feature an Ozarks backdrop, a plan that runs counter to advice dispensed by the New York Times' David Bowman: "The whole Ozark milieu is rendered so completely and expertly that Woodrell should consider changing the settings of his future novels, just as Cormac McCarthy gave up Tennessee for Mexico," he wrote in his review of Winter's Bone.

Woodrell's unlikely to budge on his next novel's setting, but he predicts it will be more upbeat than his usual somber output.

"I've aged now, and some of the bleakness of my earlier books — I don't repudiate it. But the truth is, I come from a shitty little box on Perry Street and now I got Anjelica Huston calling me at home. It means if you got a dream and you got some talent and you stick and work it, you could get something. And I'm getting a little more interested in things that might carry people that way a little bit.

"Katie points this out all the time: It's not true that there's no chance. There is a chance. My dad, fuck, he found a way. You can find a way. Might be interesting to contemplate people finding a way for a while."

About The Author

Ben Westhoff

Ben Westhoff is the author of the books Original Gangstas, Fentanyl, Inc., and Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search For the Truth.
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