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Ozark Noir

Shelly Lowenkopf -- August 28, 2011

Shelly's appreciation of his top pick for the novelist who should be, but probably is not, on everyone's list of favorites. Can you guess?

If you were to take a poll among a decent N--sampling of published writers, including an even demographic of men and women to add an important note of fairness to the outcome, asking them to name their ten favorite writers who were still producing, my bet is that the name Cormac McCarthy would appear on eighty percent of the lists.

That's a chunk of numbers to throw at you with the avowed, devious purpose of suggesting there is a writer more worthy of concern than McCarthy, yet not suggesting McCarthy's stature among living American authors is anything but deserved.

The number--one writer on my list of favorites is Louise Erdrich, whom I value ever so much more than I admire McCarthy, in large measure because I find her range of material more extensive, the access she provides to her characters more considered and nuanced, her visions of humanity more accepting. I also believe she gets into quantitative double digits for her uses of humor to McCarthy's relative single digits. Nor do I believe it is mixing apples and oranges to compare Erdrich to McCarthy; each has taken significant ventures down the roadwork of noir literature, but on balance I read McCarthy as apocalyptic and Erdrich as contemplative.

We're still not where I want to go, which is into the Ozarks, with occasional forays into the Bayou Country. Where I want to go is Daniel Woodrell (1953----), a product and chronicler of the Missouri Ozarks, a writer who termed his own work "country noir," and made it stick.

Like Erdrich and William Faulkner, Woodrell draws on family, not merely as kin but as extended tribe, a connection that links his characters not only by blood and obligation, yet at times with the simmering hatred that can only exist within an extended family. Woodrell's Ozark settings are as grim as the furniture in a thirty--dollar--a--day motel room, where a visitor is as likely to find the gutted remains of a squirrel, a washing machine, or a dyspeptic Chevy Camaro strewn about a patch of the front yard. His characters consider the fried bologna sandwich haut cuisine and are often the spawn of some forbidden attraction between members of feuding families.

Woodrell people want to survive, possibly even to escape the hypnotic pull of the Ozarks (where Woodrell continues to live), but their targets of opportunity for doing so seem to exist in a shotgun marriage with the illegal. Among his characters, there are few with curriculum vitae, more likely the democratized rap sheet instead. It is not that they are bad, because they are not; they are shifty, suspicious, more beset with the need to find useful recipes for squirrel stew than career options--but not bad. Nor are they any more romantic than Faulkner's pestered, conscience--driven people; they are, as Woodrell has described them, noir. Their lives and ambitions are rooted in the cold winters of noir and the huge summer mosquitoes of noir.

The narrative and dialogue in any given Woodrell page have the telltale hum of a sixty--dollar Chevy, worked on in some front yard in some holler, which, of course, would be a hollow to us Yankees. There are cadences and rhythms that sound as though yanked from The King James Bible or some of the secular evangelism of Walt Whitman. When his characters talk, you listen, not so much because of what they are saying as because they sound so authentic.

A bank of suspicion, potential violence, and unwanted discovery linger over every scene like a Monday--morning hangover, threatening, leaden. You are drawn into Woodrell and his country noir as you might be drawn into Faulkner and Melville and Twain, wondering as you pursue his people why you are so intent on following; this is not literature, not the way "they" are. You do not wish to go to the Ozarks as, from reading Willa Cather, you may have at least given thought to the Prairie or, from Erdrich, visiting South Dakota. South Dakota! You read Woodrell with the nervous wish to get out of the Ozark because they are the deep dark places you yourself have managed to escape.

You do