West Virginia Book Festival

Daniel Woodrell and country noir

My first encounter with Daniel Woodrell was in the late 1990s, when I read his novel “Give Us A Kiss.” I had seen it somewhere praised and described as “hillbilly noir” and, well, I like noir and I live in West Virginia, so …

“Give Us A Kiss” – subtitled “A Country Noir” — is set in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri and Arkansas, like many of Woodrell’s books (he’s from there). In the story, a novelist native to the Ozarks returns from L.A. and falls back in with his drug-dealing brother – and falls for his brother’s girlfriend’s teenage daughter, who has “red cowgirl boots [that] went up her bare legs like flame licks from hell.” The story is dark, as good noir must be, but it’s also kind of rollicking. With chapter titles like “Cast A Goomer” and “Mingled Grease Bucket,” it’s even a little cartoonish in places.

There is nothing cartoonish about “Winter’s Bone,” Woodrell’s latest novel, published in 2006. It seems strange to laud a book as both stark and lyrical, but that’s exactly what “Winter’s Bone” is, in exactly the way that Hammett and Chandler are. Characters are described in a few strokes, and the action is often stripped down to its essentials, but the story is peppered with dead-on descriptions of people and places, especially sketches of winter that the Scandinavian mystery novelists so in vogue now would love. Several times, I would read a phrase, a piece of dialogue or a description of a place and think, “Yes. That’s exactly right.”

The story’s heroine is Ree Dolly, a teenage girl trying to hold her family and home together. Her two younger brothers are growing up, her mother has lost her mind, and her father has skipped out on his bail. The family will lose their home if Ree can’t find him. Her strongest ally is her extremely scary Uncle Teardrop (so named for his tattoo), who’s a meth dealer – but in Ree’s neighborhood, just about everyone is a meth dealer or user, or both. (Her clan, the Dollys, were the antagonists in “Give Us A Kiss.”)

Here’s Ree talking about the power that names have within the Dolly clan:

“If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he ever stepped into it, for among Dollys the name carried expectations and history. Some names could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path to the shadowed place, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs held fiercest.”

The film version of “Winter’s Bone” won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and got fantastic reviews – so, of course, it never came to Charleston. (Not that I’m bitter.)

Woodrell’s books aren’t for everyone. People almost never end up happily ever after; if they’re lucky, they’re not any worse off than they were before. But if any of this sounds interesting to you, do yourself a favor and read “Winter’s Bone” before you see the movie. If you like it, move on to Woodrell’s other works, among them “Give Us A Kiss,” “The Death of Sweet Mister” and “Tomato Red.”