An author I’ll always look out for …

Daniel Woodrell

…is barely known in this country, but has started to increase his profile a little with the release of a highly acclaimed film (it won at Sundance) made of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone.  He’s actually written eight novels, all of them set in the area he knows best – the Missouri Ozarks – a mountainous region in the middle of America, and coined the term ‘country noir’ to describe them. The Ozark region is one of extremes – bleak and freezing in winter, sultry and sweltering in summer and Woodrell’s novels are peopled with memorable characters all struggling to get along in this unforgiving land. While the ones I’ve read are not traditional noir crime novels, they are bleak, tragic and there is a definite criminal sub-culture to them so they are full of noirish elements.

Winter’s Bone

I read Winter’s Bone back in late 2007, and this is what I wrote in Librarything back then …

When Jessup goes missing after putting up the Dolly family house for his bail bond, his teenage daughter Ree has to find him or be made homeless. What’s more, her Ma is crazy and she’s having to bring up her younger brothers on her own.This is life on the edge and making a living is hard.  Just about everyone is related, but these mountain folks still don’t trust each other, as Ree discovers when she goes looking for her Pa on the other side of the valley.

In a mere 193 pages, you get a icy clear picture of this hard life in the brutal winter of the Ozark mountains. Although there’s little cheer, Ree has a true pioneer spirit and you root for her from page one. (10/10)

I am really looking forward to getting the DVD of the film when it comes out at the end of January.

The Death of Sweet Mister

In contrast to Winter’s Bone, Woodrell’s previous book The Death of Sweet Mister is set during a hot summer. The story is again told by a teenager, this time a fat boy known as Shug who lives with his mother in a shack where Glenda’s job is to mow the cemetery, which means that Shug does it.  Glenda gets by drinking her ‘tea’ (rum and coke), she’s never without a thermos of it, and lives life slightly three sheets to the wind.  This makes her rather uninhibited, she’s a terrible flirt and Shug is beginning to find this awkward.  Meanwhile Glenda’s sometime boyfriend Red, a small time crook, is the nearest to a father he’s ever going to have – but he’s not a good role model using Shug to burgle sick people’s houses for their drugs as if he’s caught he’s still a juvenile.

One day Red has him respraying a car they’d used in a robbery and Shug is in trouble for doing a bad job – Glenda intervenes…

Glenda said, “Red, honey, come here.”
For her to call him honey hurt both of us but she could see he was clouding up over me.  She knew how that went.  I knew to be alert for his left fist to come at my tummy.  I knew to fall down and act destroyed if the fist landed.
“You’d like it if they run me back to the pen, huh, boy? You’d like to make a couple of fuck-ups that got me a nickel bit in the pen, or more’n that, even. Why not life, huh?”
I never answered, for what deeply stung me that day was when Glenda stood up and swished over and stood between us and did her entire girly-girl act of heaving chest and batted eyes and comely dimples that showed as bookends to her smiles.  She leaned against that man and purred.  She smelled his chest of wet red hairs and hummed a “My, oh my” hum of girly-girl invitation.  She stroked his arm with her lovely fingers.
Finally he took his attention from me and gave it to her…

There’s a terrible inevitability about Shug’s coming of age, he’s never going to escape his white trash life, well not unless something drastic happens.  Glenda really doesn’t seem to realise what she’s doing to her little boy with her overt sexuality and it’s just heartbreaking to read.  The worst thing is that Shug is really a good boy, but all these influences will turn him bad in the end.

Again in under 200 pages of spare yet beautifully descriptive prose, the author tells another hard story and leaves you in no doubt about the outcome. There are no winners in this neck of the woods – it’s only about how fast you lose. (9.5/10)

Source: Own copies

Daniel Woodrell, The Death of Sweet Mister (No Exit Press, 2002) paperback, 216 pages.

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