September 25, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Discover Daniel Woodrell

This post is the work of Jesse Donaldson, currently a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.–TM

When I finished the last pages of Daniel Woodrell’s latest novel Winter’s Bone, I knew I’d found something worthy of discussing in my first post to this blog.

Writer-in-Residence at Kenyon, P.F. Kluge introduced me to Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister in 2002. Set in the rural Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Sweet Mister involves crime, drugs, and the coming of age of its narrator, an overweight 13-year-old boy named Shuggie Akins. Shuggie lives in a cemetery with his mother Glenda, a woman given to drinking “tea” (a polite name for an alcoholic beverage) and attracting men. Glenda is also the object of Shuggie’s coming-of-age sexual fantasies; he tells us, “My mom let men have ideas about her. Some would say me too.” Sweet Mister follows the changes in Shuggie’s life as his mother attempts to end a relationship with a violent criminal and take up with a steady man who Shuggie refuses to accept out of jealousy. The novel’s narrative path is one of careening violence, as if the book is a can of pop shaken up and ready to explode.

In Winter’s Bone, however, the “inciting” incident has occurred before the first line. Ree Dolly’s crank-cooking father has disappeared after putting the family’s house up as collateral for bail, and unless she can find him by his court date the house will be repossessed. If Sweet Mister’s style is to stoke the fire with kindling until it rises to the point of no control, Winter’s Bone is the watching of the fire’s final embers. There’s a natural rhythm and cadence to Woodrell’s writing in Winter’s Bone and Ree’s story that feels more preordained than the heated events of Sweet Mister. From the beginning Ree’s quest for a father she suspects is no longer even alive has an existential feel. Her cinematically written hikes evoke the sense of a teenage girl experiencing her home, her land, more to record it to memory than to find the father she suspects is dead. There is a longing in the book that never lets go and only increases the deeper Ree plunges herself into her fruitless journey.

Woodrell has said, “I’ve always written women into my novels, and many readers have felt I could do it convincingly, and I didn’t really feel Ree’s vibe in terms of gender but of heart.” Ree is a heroine for the new millennium. When he introduces us to Ree, Woodrell writes, “Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.”

Woodrell has attained critical praise for his most recent three novels and seems on the precipice of a wider audience (the paperback version of Winter’s Bone has an author interview and suggested questions for book clubs). He was a shortlisted for the 2006 LA Times book award for Winter’s Bone award but lost to A.B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem. Woodrell’s success is good news for the world of literature–writers who combine Woodrell’s engaging plot and stunning prose are a rare group. He is the sort of writer who can appeal to both the high-fallutin literary types and those seeking a good detective-style story.

Woodrell has been approaching this blend throughout his career. His first three books were a series of detective novels and in the mid-nineties he coined the term “country-noir” to describe his novel Give us a Kiss. As Woodrell has grown as a writer, he has outgrown his own classification. He’s said, “The use of the term noir is too limiting. I didn’t realize that when I used Country Noir to describe my work, but the word noir is defined by so many ways by so many people that it is essentially useless as a descriptive terms“ So I just think of myself as a dramatic writer. A semi-southern, kinda-Gothic, dramatic writer.”

One can understand Woodrell’s hesitancy to define his work. His plots are the engaging, fast moving stuff of a Philip Marlowe detective story, and, like Raymond Chandler, Woodrell does not limit himself within the form. Ultimately the plot is not a who-done-it because as Woodrell builds character the noir aspect becomes secondary to the emotions of his protagonists. Winter’s Bone is not so much a story about finding Ree Dolly’s father, as it is a story about whether or not Ree will be able to survive and maintain her family’s life and heritage in the Ozarks. The issue is whether or not the world is a humane enough place to allow Ree a place in it. If you come by a copy of this novel and introduce yourself you Ree, you will understand how gripping and important this question is.

Jesse Donaldson’s stories have been published in Yemassee: Literary Review of South Carolina and Sweet Fancy Moses. He received the 2005 literary fellowship from the Bronx Writers’ Center, was a finalist for the Iowa Review’s fiction competition in 2007, and is currently a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. He was born in Kentucky and has lived in Ohio, Iowa, Costa Rica, New York, and Texas. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Austin.

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