Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wodehouse on the Bayou

Daniel Woodrell may not remind anyone else of P.G. Wodehouse, but both authors build fictional worlds so convincing that every utterance, every description, no matter how utilitarian its place in the narrative, is extraordinary. The smallest bit contains the seeds of the whole.

In Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy, it's quite a whole, full of "last-call Lotharios from along the Redneck Riviera" and folks who say things like "You ever think maybe you're brain-damaged a little bit, there, Slade?" — wonderful, colorful stuff without, however, mugging for the camera. There are no caricatures here, perhaps because Woodrell has such respect and sometimes heartbreaking compassion for his characters.

No caricatures in the matter of place, either. Woodrell's  slice of the American South is full of variegated human micro-climates, with insiders, outsiders, and all manner of regional differences and rivalries.  It's a much richer and more  dynamic and human depiction than one generally gets of that part of America. 

The Bayou Trilogy (Mulholland Books) packages three of Woodrell's early novels set in the fictional St. Bruno, Louisiana: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do. They're crime novels, and the first two are in rough outline something like Hammett's Red Harvest: outsiders come to a politically corrupt town, try to muscle in, and stir up trouble that includes larceny and murder. But the storytelling is so rich that it feels entirely new.

My only quibble with the first two novels in the trilogy (I've just begun the third) is that the ending to Under the Bright Lights feels just the tiniest bit forced, as if Woodrell could not quite figure out what to have his protagonist do once the action had been resolved. But that doesn't mean much set against what had gone before. I'm ready to rank these books among the great experiences of my reading life.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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27 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

After seeing Winter's Bone,I hope to get around to reading Woodrell sooner rather than later.

May 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll put the movie on my to-watch list, though I may try to read more Woodrell first, probably Tomato Red.

May 21, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think Adrian was the one who gave a lot of us the head's up on the movie, and he was right.

May 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, Adrian talked up the movie in a big way, and I'd been hearing about Woodrell for a while. Probably the most recent time was in conjunction with the reissue or impending reissue of Tomato Red by Busted Flush Press, run by the late, beloved David Thompson.

The trilogy was an impulse buy, and a good one it has turned out to be.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

Yup, gotta get me some of this. Woodrell is top quality.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, have you read any of Woodrell's later work?

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

I read Winter's Bone recently. Not sure if that's a newish one?

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His newest, apparently, though published in 2006. I hope he's all right. A writer that good should write and publish often.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

I get the impression he hasn't been prolific over the years. One book every 3 years has been his output as far as I can see. I also get the he agonises over every word. Hopefully he's working on something now, eh?

May 22, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I'm ready to rank these books among the great experiences of my reading life.

Big statement, Peter, especially given the extent of your reading. Let me say, at the outset, I haven't read as much as you have, so my scepticism needs to be read in light of my relative ignorance.

Genius is a word that gets thrown around a little too much these days, but when it comes Daniel Woodrell, it’s nearly an understatement." -- Reed Farrel Coleman

I've copied and pasted that from Busted Flush Press. Genius, eh? I'm surprised he didn't call Woodrell an icon. Who needs Shakespeare and Homer when you've got writers like Daniel Woodrell and who needs critics like Samuel Johnson when you've got critics like Reed Farrel Coleman to tell us what 'genius' is.

Back when I was a teenager, a long time ago, there were assholes who chose their music simply on the basis that it was unpopular. If by some chance the band they liked became popular, those people were heartbroken because they had to share their tastes with the crowd. And why was that? Very simple, really They weren't interested in music. They were interested in distinction. Something that would separate them from what they considered the unwashed masses and assuage their basic insecurity about themselves. Much of what passes for literary taste comes down to that same desire for distinction.

Woodrell doesn't sell much, and he's not widely known, so he's perfect for those who wish to consider themselves sophisticated or 'in the know'.

Here's Ken Bruen (again from Busted Flush Press):

There is no writer I know I would love to devote a whole novel to just quoting from his work. There are crime writers… literary writers… and then… Daniel Woodrell. Nobody comes near his amazing genius and I very doubt anyone ever will.

Amazing genius? Nobody's ever going to come near him? Are you kidding me? What substance was Bruen on when he wrote shite like that? At best, he's trying help a struggling writer get some more sales, a reasonable objective, at least if the writer is good enough, but the hyperbole he indulges himself in should give any reader pause. Is he promoting a great writer or is he merely telling the reader what great taste he has?

You wrote about jargon recently, Peter. Bruen's comment is a good example of jargon,. Once upon a time genius meant something. Now the word has become so debased that Bruen has to stick the qualifier 'amazing' before it, as if there were ordinary or mediocre geniuses. And these days, Bruen is what passes for a 'good writer'.

Oh, well. I'm just an old fart. Don't pay any attention to me.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be nice to think so, Michael. I like the first three of his that I've just read.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I hate to tell you this, but a blurb on the back cover of The Bayou Trilogy calls Woodrell a "backwoods Shakespeare."

May 22, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's funny, but I've just been reading a paper a friend wrote on Joyce and Dali and both guys did not hesitate to proclaim themselves geniuses.

And they were.

Perhaps it's just a matter of saying it?

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, "genius" does get thrown around an awful lot.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It does, but that doesn't mean there aren't some, and that they don't know that they are. It sounds a bit arrogant, but I don't know that it actually is.

Well, not being a genius, I wouldn't know, would I?

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'm content to call Woodrell a fine teller of stories, at least in these books, about which I may have more to say in a future post. Whether he's a genius, I don't know, and I don't care much, I suppose. I'm not even sure what the word means.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't either, but I suppose it could turn up one day in a blog post.

And you're right, the label doesn't matter all that much. I think the self-referential aspect is more of a morale booster, because Joyce and Dali at least were way out there on the fringes.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thank goodness for folks like Shakespeare and Bach. Everybody knows that they're geniuses, so no one has to figure out the term means: Bach is a genius, therefore a genius is Bach.

Except that Bach was essentially unknown until his rediscovery in the first half of the nineteenth century. So it may be wise to be sparing in our use of the word genius, but this really has nothing to do with I wrote about Daniel Woodrell.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think it's interesting that some geniuses are self-identified and may even be right about that. However, I suppose some geniuses are more ambivalent about their talents.

Again, I wouldn't know, and anyway, there are plenty of people out there today that I can profit from reading, geniuses or no.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think I've ever given serious thought to what defines a genius. I suppose excellence at what one does, and seeing things in ways no one else has before would be a good start.

In the meantime, I have spent much worthwhile reading time in the company of non-geniuses.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

My professor Donald Nicholl, who was a pretty sharp cookie himself, always said that he had met one genius and one saint.

I expect it's a case of knowing one when you see one.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Was he able to tell the saint and the genius apart?

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or of knowing them by their work without seeing them.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Well, that takes the biscuit.

"Uncle Fred in the Springtime" is running on TV as I write and I've posted a piece on Weasel Words on Widgetinghour for your "delectation" or "dereliction".

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've always loved that expression, which I heard in the version, "Well, don't that just take the biscuit?"

I can't remember where I first heard or read it, but I shall have to look up its origin. Why the biscuit? Last biscuit left on the table at a public school or a debtor's prison, maybe?

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

It's London slang and I've sent some links to your Twitter account.

It's a bit like "the last straw" but more humourous and ironic.

In fact, I used it because it sounded good, not because my comment made much sense.

It's quite light-hearted really, not like the heavy handed question used to indicate that a person is a whingebag... "Who took the butter off your bun". (That does not make much sense to anybody who thinks that a bun is a euphhemism for a part of the human anatomy, not a sweet cake like a cookie or biscuit.)

Ireland is full of geniuses, BTW.
They're all daft as a brush.

May 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Daft as a brush."

I'm writing this all down.

I quite like "whingebag." I've loved whinge since I first heard it, and I'm guessing whingebag is a coinage based on the similarity of sound between whinge and wind.

London slang makes sense for "take the biscuit." I hear it -- and, again, I wish I could remember where I first heard it -- with a cockney accent.

May 23, 2011  

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