Anyone who was rooting for Winter's Bone at the Academy Awards probably knows that it's based on a book by Daniel Woodrell. What they may not know is that Woodrell himself is a product of the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri, and that his work is heavily influenced by his life in the area. Woodrell refers to his work as "country noir." Born and raised in the Ozark region of Missouri, Woodrell likes to tell a hard-boiled mystery, but instead of setting it in the dark alleys of a city he sets it in the dark dirt roads of the back woods.
As a person with family who comes from some people call "Pennsyltucky", I was intrigued to see how Woodrell would approach the lives of the rural poor in our country. He utilizes various techniques to cut through the stereotypes we have about them and take a more realistic look at their lives. Here are some thoughts on three of his novels, and the techniques he uses in each to make an honest statement about those folks we refer to as "hillbillies."
Winter's Bone is a story that twists setting and character types. The protagonist, Ree Dolly, is a 16-year-old taking care of her two younger brothers. On one hand, she lives a very harsh existence. She is dirt poor, her meth-cooking father went missing after putting up their home as bail collateral, and her mom has gone completely off the deep end. So she has to keep everything together while desperately trying to find her dad, all in a geographical area that seems utterly devoid of opportunity for growth. On the other hand, Ree finds comfort in that very same geography as she isolates herself in the woods and listens to the whale sounds and other calming cassette tapes that were originally meant as therapy for her mother. For lack of a better term, she seems to have a love-hate relationship with a land that she desperately wants to escape but also uses for solace.
The characters in Winter's Bone represent a contradiction of conventional wisdom about how people should act according to their role in life. As a pretty, young girl, Ree should be the distressed damsel in this detective story. Instead, she's Sam Spade, putting herself in any number of dangerous positions to solve the mystery of her father's whereabouts. Her Uncle Teardrop, who is so named because of the teardrop tattoo he earned for some unmentionable act committed in prison, should be the villain rather than what he becomes, which is Ree's only protector. By confusing the reader's expectations about characters and their relationship with their home, Woodrell forces the reader to pay closer attention.
Give Us a Kiss
Woodrell takes a much more playful approach here than he does in Winter's Bone. Doyle, an author living in California, steals his newly ex wife's car and heads back to his birth town in the Ozarks at the behest of his parents to work out his brother, Smoke's, legal problems. The book's tone is best summed up by Doyle's recounting of the origin of his brother's nickname, which he got when he pulled a freshly cooked pan of bacon of a kitchen counter and spilled boiling hot grease on himself. It's an example of people who manage to inject humor in a hard situation, and even turn it into something good.
By the end of the novel, Woodrell even managed to instill this attitude in me as the reader. Fair warning about some spoilers, but by the end of the book Doyle is in prison awaiting a murder trial and his love interest has left him behind to make it in Hollywood. If I was someone reading about Doyle's situation in the newspaper, I'd probably find it a sad, white-trash story. But after following Doyle through the events that got him there, I actually count it as a happy ending.
If Woodrell approaches life in the Ozarks with confounded expectations in Winter's Bone and humor in Give Us a Kiss, then tragic flaws are Woodrell's angle in Tomato Red. The main character and narrator, Sammy Barlach, is a man so obsessed with belonging that it puts him in one bad position after another. He starts the story trying to break into a mansion in the rich part of town in order to impress a nameless group of junkies, and he winds up meeting young siblings Jamalee and Jason. They want to finance their way out of town by setting up Jason as a gigolo with wealthy women in town, and they shanghai Sammy into working as their muscle. If Sammy wasn't so eager to get in with Jamalee and Jason, then he might have been able to seen the flaws in a plan that relies on Jason, who is obviously gay, having sex with large numbers of women.
As he gets closer to the siblings, as well as their prostitute mother Beverly, he gets deeper and deeper in trouble, partially due to Jamalee's tragic flaw of pushing too hard against her circumstances and Beverly's tragic flaw of buckling too easily against them. The ending of this story is bad for everyone involved, but even though I could find fault in man of the decisions that got them there, I could at least understand them.
This is what Woodrell does best. He's not trying to make the reader condone the actions of his characters. He's simply immersing the reader in their lives to give a taste of what it's like to have to make some of the decisions they have to make. Think of it as a much more sophisticated way of a trailer trash guest on Springer shouting "You don't know me!" But when you think about it, that trailer trash guest has a point. We don't know them, or the reasons for what they do, and Woodrell wants us to think about that.