Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Catching Up #43 & #44: Daniel Woodrell's The Death of Sweet Mister and Winter's Bone

Don't even start - you know what the Catching Up series is for, dear readers. It's for, like, catching up and shit. Pretty self-fucking-explanatory. So yes, until recently I, the self-proclaimed Nerd of Noir, had never read a fucking Daniel Woodrell novel. Ever. I'm ashamed, indeed I fucking am, but I am fixing the situation as best I can. Besides, maybe there's some of you out there in the noirosphere that have yet to read Woodrell either. Maybe I'm doing the world a favor by admitting that yes, even dark crime junkies like myself make an oversight, can leave something deathly important and exciting at the bottom of the TBR pile for too long.

Or maybe I've just lost the respect of my discerning readership, doomed myself to never being read again. I'd understand that backlash because, no fucking shit, Woodrell is that necessary, that fucking amazing. But blogs are part masturbation and part nobody-fucking-cares confessional so here we go irre-fucking-gardless (I know that irregardless isn't a word, but it rules, you know, irregardless).

I've got two reviews rocking and rolling for you today that showcase that Woodrell is both for the basement crazies but also for, well, fucking everyone, I suppose. First, let me sate the basement crazies with The Death of Sweet Mister, a nasty little slice of awesome that will make your skin crawl and your noir boner rage.

It's the story of Shuggie Akins, a fat boy who lives with his sexy mother Glenda and junkie thief "dad" Red in the Ozarks of Missouri. Well, Shug and Glenda live together anyhow, Red is usually off with junkie pal Basil ripping off pharmacies and shut-ins for pills then partying for weeks at a time. And when Red is around, he's either ragging on Shuggie or beating him, though sometimes they'll do "men stuff," i.e. Red forces the boy to help in his latest score. But when Glenda gets involved with a classy chef with a fancy car (well, for West Table, MO he's classy), Shuggie's shitty life begins to get even shittier.

The Death of Sweet Mister starts out as a by turns funny and sad slice of life story about white trash in the Vietnam era South, but as this short novel races to the end, it becomes a classic noir story, then a much more twisted, disturbing thing all its own. It's a coming of age tale where your protagonist doesn't become older and wiser, but more hardened and evil than we initially thought possible. It's a complex work and at times awesomely creepy, but also reads like a fucking dream.

Woodrell's prose is sharp and his storytelling skills sly as all hell. And the dialogue? Fucking hysterically true. And don't get me started on the man's details and lore because I'll fucking blab all afternoon. Dude just plain knows how much to leave in and how much to take out. This shit is as direct and fast-paced as the best thriller while also managing to take the time to wow you with some "writerly" touches that don't bug the shit out of you in the least.

But if you're looking for something to stuff in stockings this Christmas (look at the Nerd, getting all Oprah's Favorite Things on your ass), you should really pick up Winter's Bone, a book that I'd recommend to anyone, no fucking reservations. It's the story of Ree Dolly, a sixteen year old hillbilly gal from Rathlin Valley in, again, the Missouri Ozarks. Ree takes care of her touched-in-the-head mom and two younger brothers in their shit shack while her pops is off cooking meth and generally raising hell. But one day the sheriff drops by and warns Ree that her old man is due in court for a drug charge in a week and nobody's seen hide nor hair of his ass in quite sometime. Shit of it is, the dirtbag used their house as collateral for his bond so if he doesn't show, the bail bondsman takes the house and Ree's shaky family is left in the cold.

Thus begins Ree's search for her father, a journey that will put her in all kinds of danger seeing how it puts her at odds with the rest of the Dolly clan, a powerful old hillbilly force in those parts. But Ree's got the sand to confront the old ones and the old ways when it comes to saving her family - shotguns, meth-crazies and beatd0wns be damned.

There are a billion things to recommend in Winter's Bone, but what struck me first is Woodrell's ability to make you feel like you're getting an inside look at a culture you didn't know existed anymore. The rules and heirarchies of the Dolly clan are absolutely fascinating, from their weird religion to the story behind why certain boys are named what, it's all so exciting and fresh and fucking alive.

But just shining a light on a little known culture is not enough to recommend a book (though when you look at what's popular at your local bookstore, apparently it is these days), so thankfully Woodrell's characters come alive and the story never disappoints. Ree is one of the most hilarious and believably tough and totally human characters I've come across in good goddamn while and there's nary a supporting player who doesn't ring true as well. Yeah, shit doesn't get as fucked and dark as it does in The Death of Sweet Mister but I had absolutely no problem with that because no shit, you come to love Ree Dolly like she's your kid sister.

And did I mention that this shit is fucking sly as all hell? There's this blink and you miss it reveal at the end of the book that just makes me fucking red with envy. Jesus, it's fucking perfect (if you've read it, you know what I'm talking about. Or you missed it and I'm totally smarter than you. Excuse me while I pat my own back).

But like I said, this book is fucking for everyone you know. It's fun enough, dark enough, smart enough, and just plain fascinating enough that I dare anybody to talk shit about it. I saw it's being made into a movie (with Deadwood favorites Garret Dillahunt and John Hawkes as part of the cast!) but don't fuck up and see that shit first. I mean, book's not even two hundred pages, for fuck's sake.

So there you go, dear readers. I'm catching up with Woodrell slowly but surely. And if you are like I once was and ignorant of the man's work, here's two perfectly good excuses to get fucking de-ignoranted or some shit like that. Yeah, you're fucking welcome.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Winter's Bone is amazing. I can't say enough great things about it.

Unknown said...

Make sure to pick up a copy of Give Us a Kiss. It's Woodrell's best.

PokerBen said...

Damn it nerd, my TBR pile just got bigger.

John Rector said...

WINTER'S BONE is great, but IMHO, TOMATO RED is easily his best book.

Paul D Brazill said...

I read one of his books about 10 years ago and can't for the life of me think what it was. i rmember it was pretty good, though. Top reviews. I really fancy that Winter's Bone.

Unknown said...

"Woodrell's ability to make you feel like you're getting an inside look at a culture you didn't know existed anymore"

What do you mean "doesn't exist anymore"?