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.