just trying to keep score.

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woodrell continued

“These wild kids are reared on baloney and navy beans, corn mush and Kool-Aid, and quick, terrible rough stuff. Their lips are circled by orange or red or green juice stains and their knees and elbows generally have scabs on them from two or three scraps at recess. All they ever know is that they want, and someday they’ll learn you got, and after that the rest is sirens and statistics and nods from the wall of dead.”

Uneven, that is, with flashes of something more: this is maybe a little awkward, but it’s the same thing that animates the best noir writing — a sense of injustice rooted in the specifics of place, class, situation. It’s not out of place here, really, because this book’s a jumble; in another kind of book, where this sentiment becomes the backbone of the story, you wind up with something dark and angry and maybe even important. 

November 08, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

daniel woodrell, give us a kiss

“A dog that listens is so handy to validate that, though you’re having a conversation with no human present, you are talking to a dog, which is next best and means you aren’t touched in the head. A person alone talking to a dog seems sort of cute, capable of tenderness and so forth, whereas if you sat there having the same exact sort of conversation without a dog present to ameliorate the wackiness, people would quit making eye contact with you, call your mother suggesting mental health facilities. The dog makes all the difference.”

This is the Woodrell voice, the thing that redeemed even Muscle for the Wing, now placed in the Ozarks where it belongs, in the mouth of a character whose biography shares the same outlines as his author’s. The voice carries this one, too, and even though it’s subtitled “A Country Noir” it’s more comic than suspenseful, with the noir stuff and the mechanism of the plot taking a backseat to character and setting, at least until the very end when it all falls apart. Which doesn’t make it unsuccessful, exactly; it’s delightful. But it does make it uneven.

Little Brown (orig. Henry Holt 02.96)

November 07, 2012, 12:01pm   Comments

woodrell continued

“He began to turn on lamps, first one, then two, then all of them; six in the front room, three in the big bedroom, two in each of the kids’ rooms, then the tall one with the fake fruit tree base and shade fringed by dangling green grapes that rose up from the kitchen table. Della had for some reason thought lamps to be perfect works of art, and affordable, and she’d made a hobby of their collection, haunting flea markets and church sales searching for lamps, the older the better, even if she had to rewire them herself. One corner of the garage was cluttered with two dozen lamps of all types, most hopelessly broken, that she had meant to repair but never had.”

And that’s what happens here: this is no longer an excuse for an exercise of style, a showcase for a turn of phrase; instead, it becomes a moment of nostalgia that expresses character, relationship, setting, and emotion, economically and pointedly, as the widower enters his own empty house.

May 15, 2011, 7:03am   Comments

daniel woodrell, the ones you do

“Tip Shade was a jumbo package of pock-faced bruiser, with long brown hair greased behind his ears, hanging to his shoulders. His eyes were of a common but unnamed brown hue. He tended to scowl by reflex and grunt in response. His neck was a holdover from some normal-necked person’s nightmare, and when he crossed his arms it looked like two large snakes procreating a third.
"He did his own bouncing.”

There’s something like two years between the first two books of this trilogy, and then four years before this one comes around. Somewhere in that time, Woodrell got his style back. And if this bit doesn’t have the jittery high-low tension of his first book, it’s much more comfortable and mature, much more able to carry the weight of this book — which isn’t about the style or the place anymore, but can focus with a little more assurance on character.

reprinted in The Bayou Trilogy, Mulholland Books 04.28.11

May 14, 2011, 7:32am   Comments

daniel woodrell, muscle for the wing

“Mother Nature was laying down some Law out there in the bayou night, and as befits the order of things, large feathered creatures dove off high branches, swooped low and stuck talons in smaller furry meals, and bandit-eyed coons came stealthily out of hollow logs and glommed finned, scaly chow from the still, brackish shallows, while all those things that slither waited, coiled, for the passing appearance of any prey absentminded, and where the bayou waters butted against land and a screened porch overlooked the boggy stage for these food-chain theatricals, Emil Jadick sat on the arm of the couch and wrapped up a lecture that had been real Type A in tone and content.”
If Under the Bright Lights succeeds on style — and believe you me, it does — despite its coathanger plot, the deck is stacked against Muscle for the Wing. It’s the second time around for Woodrell with these characters, or at least half of them, and he’s got an even more basic plot, a variation on the psychopath-with-a-grudge plot. This wouldn’t be much of a problem, though, if the style didn’t ossify and degrade in this second installment. But it has — you can feel the pop-eyed straining here, where something like “glommed finned, scaly chow from the still, brackish shallows” substitutes merely interesting words (or, also, stock description) for the play of high and low diction in the earlier book, and the careful rhythms of Woodrell’s prose turn into deadening repetition of syllables and patterns. Never mind the consistency flaws in characterization, or the hash of motives that move the plot along; this thing almost reads like parody.

reprinted in The Bayou TrilogyMulholland Books 04.28.11

May 13, 2011, 3:39pm   Comments

daniel woodrell, under the bright lights

“A sort of fond sadness meandered through Shade. It was partly because he loved his brother and knew him perfectly, partly because he did not know him at all. The unlighted chamber where one’s true and most secret longings and convictions are housed has a door that is impressively sealed. The more you turn the knob and peek through the keyhole, the more you have to guess, and the less you know.”
Absolutely a piece that’s carried by style, as it’s rooted in a place and a geography; this is a book that doesn’t pull you along to find out what happens, because mostly you already know and the plot’s just something to hang everything else on. Instead, it’s a book you wind up reading slower to keep up with the nuances and stay within the voice. Or, really, voices: Woodrell is great at dialect, at rhythms of spoken language, and in his narration he drops into a southern gothic semiformality that’s just as distinctive. Both of these voices are cadenced, rhythmic; the gulf between narration and speech, high and low, is huge and striking.

“There had been a time, not too long ago, when Francois has been energetic in his defense of the stepped-on multitudes, passionate in his pleas for those mendicants before the bar, those old neighborhood losers whose humanity he would not deny. He’d had a threat in his stance toward the system that had not always been kind to those close to him, and a mind quick to become belligerent in his quest of justice for the smallfry.”

reprinted in The Bayou Trilogy, Mulholland Books 04.28.11

May 11, 2011, 10:21am   Comments