Reading With Fakename: The Bayou Trilogy

This is a collection of three novellas by Daniel Woodrell:  Under the Bright Lights, Muscle For the Wing, and The Ones You Do. 

I previously read his novel Winter’s Bone, and thought it was good, but somehow I guess it didn’t make that much of an impression on me.  I was surprised to find that it had been turned into a movie that garnered a top prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and was later nominated for four Academy Awards.  As far as I know, it didn’t win any.  But it sounds like it should have.  The story would, in a way, remind you of “Cold Mountain”.

These current books, however, are making a major impression on me.  And part of the reason is the setting.  These are my people, for better or for worse. 

I was born in Tennessee, but moved to North Carolina when I was 9, and graduated from high school there when I was 17.  In many ways you could say those 8 years were “formative”, and I still have friends there, in the way you do with people from high school.  But all of them were born in North Carolina and it feels like home to them.  They really, really like native writers from the mountains, whether it’s North Carolina, Virginia, or West Virginia.  (Example:  Lee Smith). And so do I.  I recognize the characters, the settings, the idioms. 

When I graduated from high school, I moved back to Tennessee–to Memphis–and stayed there for 25 years.  I am intimately familiar with Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi.  Then I moved to New Orleans for 4 years, so I now know Louisiana a bit too.  Then I moved to Iowa for 2 years, and I was ever so glad to do it.  Finally!, I said.  An escape from the South!  I couldn’t wait to leave behind the South’s racial tensions and clannish pretensions. 

But a funny thing happened.  Living in Iowa turned out to be an experiment in living as a fish out of water.  It never felt “right” to me.  I began to miss everything I thought I’d wanted to leave behind.  And that’s not even counting the weather. 

When I had the opportunity to go further south, I jumped at it.  After a brief (one-year) sojourn in Norfolk, I moved to Florida.  That was 1999.  And Florida counts as the South.  Well, at least North Florida does.  Here in Tallahassee, we are after all only ten miles from the Georgia border.  South Florida does not really count as Florida, in the same way that Atlanta is not Georgia, and New Orleans is not Louisiana. 

So these novels make me feel “at home”.  I completely get the slightly menacing atmosphere; the fact that it’s very hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.  They are always a little of both.  That is of course true everywhere, but it seems to be more evident in the South.  The contradictions are on the surface.  For example, men in the South have a long history of revering women.   On paper, anyway.  But as an actual woman in the actual South, you are always one step away from being threatened.  It’s just my observation. 

But aside from the setting, it’s Woodrell’s writing that is the dynamite.  If I were a real writer, I’d want to grow up to be just like him.  He can describe people in such a way that you can literally see them standing in front of you.  One review describes him as “a backcountry Shakespeare”.  Another says he is “the least-known major writer in the country”.  I couldn’t agree more. 

I’ll leave you with some of those descriptions so you can see what I mean. 

“Willie Bastion was rock-and-roll lean with a long shag of dark hair and from his left ear dangled a glittering shank of earring that might have pulled in a keeper bass if it were trolled near rocks.  His nose was narrow with a sharp, balloon-busting tip, and his cheeks were blue with stubble”.  (See what I mean?  Can’t you just SEE this guy?)

“The note that was intended to make him feel pitiful as well as endangered was delivered by his ten-year-old daughter, Etta.  She came in the side door and through the sea shell and driftwood decor of the lounge where her mother had been the musical entertainment prior to taking up thievery, carrying a small pink vinyl suitcase that had a picture of Joan Jett embossed on the lid.  The girl had thick black hair cut in a fashion her mother considered hip, this being a feminine sort of flat-top with long rat-tail tresses dangling down the back of her neck.  She wore a green T-shirt that was pro-manatee and raggedy jeans that were hacked off just below the knees.  A black plastic crucifix hung lightly from her right ear.” 

“Etta sat on a chair, pink suitcase in her lap.  She had a problem looking straight at Grampa Enoch, who’d taught her many things about the largemouth, the spotted, the redeye, and even the Suwannee basses, back when he’d been seventy or eighty pounds more alive.”

Stunning.  Picture-perfect.  I hope this makes you want to read him.

12 responses to “Reading With Fakename: The Bayou Trilogy

  1. That description of Etta is perfect North Florida, which is where that scene takes place as opposed to the Louisiana or southem Mississippi bayous. All those places seem to be places that time and space have passed by. Where a sort of alternative culture has persisted, regardless of TV and the Internet. It’s an anthropologist’s dream.

  2. “These are my people, for better or for worse. ”

    That’s the way Robert E Lee saw it too.

    “The story would, in a way, remind you of “Cold Mountain”.

    Well that is high praise indeed, I think Charles Frazier to be the best contemporary Southern writer I have read, so I’ll put Woodrell on my list.

    I saw the movie and enjoyed it a lot. I saw characters I knew from the tapestry of my Southern life. Southern culture is still here but you have to look harder to see it in many places, many just don’t have the interest to do so.

  3. Outstanding comparison pt, with Robert E. Lee. As I recall it, they wanted him to lead the Union army, and he said, “I just can’t”. You saw the movie Cold Mountain or the movie Winter’s Bone? If you saw the movie Winter’s Bone and you’re anything like me, you won’t want to read the book. (I can see a movie after reading a book, but not the other way around.) But the Bayou Trilogy will not disappoint. Muscle For the Wing makes no sense as a title until you learn that the Wing is a prison gang, similar to the Aryan Brotherhood.
    There are still an awful lot of places here where you can see people just like Etta. Any trip from Tallahassee to the coast will do it, in places like Carabelle and Panacea and St. Marks. There are plenty of tourists going through those places, particularly from Tallahassee, but the locals seem untouched by that.

  4. Oh sorry…I have seen both movies. In this post I was referring to Winters Bone Cold Mountain is a movie I have watched a dozen times It’s my kinda story and Nicole Kidman one of my favorites

  5. I read both books and saw neither movie. I don’t see many movies, and I virtually never re-read books or re-see movies. I didn’t know until after reading Cold Mountain that it is essentially a retelling of The Odyssey. Once you know that, it’s like an aha moment. Same with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which turns out to be a retelling of Hamlet. Even if I’d known that ahead of time, I’m pretty sure I would have found it gripping anyway.
    I agree with you about Nicole Kidman. I think she doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. I think she’s on a par with Meryl Streep, whom I consider to be the best actress ever to exist.

  6. I don’t understand the infatuation everyone has with Meryl Streep. I agree that she is a fine actress, but to compare her to Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, or even Vivian Leigh would be a tough sell. And then there’s Garbo who wouldn’t play politics and only won an honorary Oscar despite the fact she had 4 nominations. But then again, the modern audiences like to put even a mediocre actress like Kate Winslet ahead of the greatest. Winslet better than even Garbo…..I don’t think so. Katherine Hepburn won 4 Oscars and garnered 12 nominations while Meryl Streep won 2 Oscars and only had 10 nominations, so statistically the academy would put Hepburn solidly ahead, and Hepburn played some of the most memorable roles ever, roles that will be long remembered well after Streep and Kidman are mere footnotes in history.

  7. Well now that you mention it, Jeff, I see your point. I kind of forgot about Katherine Hepburn. I don’t think you ever outdo African Queen. But the Academy should not necessarily be our guide. It’s a political process. I’ll revise my statement to say that Streep belongs in the company with Hepburn. But Winslet? I’m with you. No way. Having the good fortune to appear in a blockbuster movie is not the same thing as being a blockbuster actress. Hepburn could have appeared in Halloween 27, or whatever number they’re up to now, and she would have made it a good movie worth watching.

  8. It was sad that Hepburn in African Queen lost out to Vivian Leigh for the Oscar when Vivian did Streetcar Named Desire. But then, Vivian did a sublime job in that movie. Blanche DuBois is the best character in a movie I’ve ever seen, and Hepburn rightfully so should have lost. Hepburn would won in any other year. Still, Hepburn, although she acted in a lot of clunkers had so many roles, especially with Tracy. Meryl Streep had some real bad roles herself with A.I, Devil Wears Prada, and the worst movie of all time “Death Becomes Her.” Ouch, I want to rub my eyes with steel wool every time that comes on TV.

  9. Lol at the steel wool comment. I feel so much the same way that I refuse to watch it. I don’t want to see Streep descend to that level. I also know just what you mean by “any other year”. I’m a closet fan of animated movies, and the year that “Bolt” came out, it was nominated for the Academy Award for best animated film. It was spectacular and is right up there with “Bambi”. Unfortunately, it came out the same year as “Wall-E”, so it was doomed.

  10. I liked Bolt a lot. Although I am a fan of good acting, I love the worst acting, the cheesiest movies around. I love Gamera, Godzilla, and really bad horror flicks. I found a horror flick that was from the early 70’s and the last time I saw it was in 1975…..until recently. This movie is so whacked, the only redeeming feature is the brain transplant with real cadavers. The acting is horrible, the sets so bad, the budget was so low, Dr. Scholl would be looking up at it. Here is the youtube of the whole flick. Brain of Blood. Enjoy:)

  11. “Katherine Hepburn won 4 Oscars and garnered 12 nominations while Meryl Streep won 2 Oscars and only had 10 nominations, so statistically the academy would put Hepburn solidly ahead, and Hepburn played some of the most memorable roles ever, roles that will be long remembered well after Streep and Kidman are mere footnotes in history.”

    When I was a child we had very little. I remember what a treat it was to take a teaspoon of chilled Borden’s condensed sweet milk and lick it forever. It was the best desert I could imagine. Truth be known I still like it. Later in life as fortune turned I developed a taste for creme brulee’. One appears on the menu of world class restaurants the other in cheap grocery stores, but I like em both. Nicole has always been a favorite because she’s Nicole , but the cream de la cream is Streep. Sophie’s Choice is the finest piece of acting I have ever seen.Her mastery of accents is unprecedented. Love Hepburn but she mostly played Hepburn like Stewart played Stewart. Have always loved Bergman because of her eyes and “presence.” Neither of them ever had a role like Sophie’s Choice IMHO. (as long as we are digressing from point) Oh and btw Streep had 16 nomination’s and will likely be remembered as the gold standard.

  12. A nomination isn’t the same thing as winning, and there have been some real clunkers being nominated. But the discussion we are having is very subjective and nobody will win. This is like saying French Impressionism is better art than Cubism just because they command higher prices at Sothebys.

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