Friday, April 8, 2011

The Bayou Trilogy and the Woodrell Revival

Several years ago, I’d hear occasional whispers, passing virtual mentions, that I should be reading this guy Daniel Woodrell. That he’d be right up my alley: crime, noir… and something else.

I read a lot of crime fiction -- that is, books that are marketed as such and shelved in the mystery section in bookstores and libraries. I have partially, but not entirely, forsaken books that are categorized by the categorizers as mainstream or literary fiction. Why? That’s another topic, but for now, I’m usually reading books whose plots involve murder, robbery, investigation, and so on.

So, I got on to Woodrell because of these genre markers, but I’ve stuck with him and have been evangelizing his works because of the “something else.” Woodrell has a following among crime fiction readers, but I could also see readers being disappointed because Woodrell sometimes spectacularly thwarts genre expectations (see my earlier comments on Tomato Red, his favorite of mine).

Woodrell has now gotten more attention because of the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone. He also recently won the Clifton Fadiman Medal for The Death of Sweet Mister (which I haven’t read) given to “a living American author in recognition of a work of fiction published more than ten years ago that deserves renewed notice and introduction to a new generation of readers.”

Mulholland Books has now reissued (well, later this month) what it’s calling The Bayou Trilogy (sometimes referred to as the St. Bruno trilogy for the fictitious town where the books take place). In these books, Woodrell skews closest to traditional crime fiction: cop Rene Shade investigates local crimes, while balancing family obligations and his love life.

The stories/plots per se aren’t quite so important: instead, Woodrell thrives on evocative and colorful characters, odd scenes, sharp dialogue, and just plain electrifying prose. You can open his books at just about any random spot and find a funny, original, insightful, vivid turn of phrase. I still laugh whenever I think of Big Annie (in the bucolic noir Give Us A Kiss) who puts on a shirt that our narrator describes thus: “The shirt proclaimed that she preferred Dukakis in the upcoming presidential pissin’ match” (funny, reflective of characters, a commentary on politics -- and just listen to that sentence).

Woodrell also seems to have bits of Flannery O’Connor running around his imagination. In the last book of the trilogy, The Ones You Do, there is an unforgettable villain named Lunch Pumphrey -- vicious, principled, and amusing at once.

It’s great to see the Bayou/St. Bruno books back on the shelves. Busted Flush Press also recently reissued Tomato Red. I hope that more readers and Hollywood interest have a liberating rather than a confining influence on Woodrell. In Give Us A Kiss, there are a couple of great scenes of the narrator’s time in the military, and Woodrell told me last October (I accosted him at Bouchercon, and he let me buy him a drink) that he might like to write something growing out of his time in the Marines. I’d like to read that book -- even if it’s not a crime novel.

Required FTC blogger disclosure: Hey, thanks to Miriam Parker, the super-cool marketing director at Mulholland Books who sent me an advanced copy of The Bayou Trilogy, when I lamented that I couldn’t find a copy of the middle title, Muscle for the Wing.

No comments: