“The Volvo, I knew, didn’t exactly belong to me, and was probably reported stolen, and there’s an open bottle of Johnnie Red on the dash, and the blue pillowcase with the ladystinger in it is on the backseat, and this land hasn’t technically been ours for near forty years.”
In the beautiful, frightening world of Ozark mountain novelist Daniel Woodrell, the above describes a fairly run-of-the-mill afternoon. You may know Woodrell’s work better than you realize: the movies Winter’s Bone and Ride With The Devil are both adaptations of his novels.
Fellow writer Dennis Lehane calls Woodrell’s stories “high Greek tragedy about low people”. Reading Woodrell is to ride shotgun with meth cooks, brawlers, robbers, hustlers, senior citizen killers. You’ll meet expert catfish noodlers, truck-driving gangsters, clans of thieves and squatters; even the odd Civil War bushwhacker or two. Binding them all together is their adherence to uncompromising backcountry values – loyalty to kin, violent revenge and blood feuding, distrust of the law – values from the old country carried through the Appalachians 200 years ago and now rooted in the rocky Ozark soil. You’ll have the time of your life with these people; just don’t get on the wrong side of them.
If you’re new to “the battle-hardened bard of meth country” (moniker courtesy of Esquire magazine, following an encounter with Woodrell’s crank-dealing next-door neighbors in West Plains, Missouri) try one of these three books for size:
1: Give Us a Kiss (novel)
Let’s start with an easy, fun, and atmospheric read. Give Us a Kiss is less literary than some of Woodrell’s later work, but it’s a rip-roaring adventure and a great introduction to his Ozark world.
The story follows Doyle, a struggling writer on the lam, who agrees to run a family errand back in his Ozark hometown. The errand is to get his wild older brother Smoke, wanted for a felony, to turn himself in. However, Smoke is living in his own mountain paradise and about to harvest a huge crop of backwoods marijuana. Instead of taking Smoke in, Doyle joins the scheme – right in time to come up against the fearsome Dolly clan, who want Smoke’s crop for themselves.
2: The Outlaw Album (short stories)
Some of Woodrell’s books, like Give Us a Kiss, go down like six-packs of perfectly chuggable beer. The Outlaw Album, on the other hand, exists at the ‘craft beer’ end of things, possibly in several tiny glasses on a little wooden rack. This collection of short Ozark stores is mostly dark, sometimes tragic, and always beautifully crafted and full of flavor.
You’ll take a run through the wood with the crazy ex-con who burns down his pushy neighbor’s house to restore his dying dad’s view of a river, get into the revengeful mind of Boshell, who can’t stop killing the man who shot his dog, and meet ageing Civil War guerilla Jake Rodel, whose full tale Woodrell tells in Woe to Live On.
3: Winters Bone (novel)
Thanks to Jennifer Lawrence and the Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, this is the best-known of all Woodrell’s stories, adapted for the screen in 2010 to rave reviews. The book is even better: dark, rich in lore, and bleak as an Ozark mountainside in January.
The Dollys, by a country mile, are Woodrell’s most fascinating characters: they’re terrifying, but you can’t look away. Winter’s Bone is the story of 16-year old Ree Dolly, head of her household since her meth-cook dad absconded. Unfortunately, he put up the family home as bail collateral before he left, and the bail bondsman will give Ree just a week’s grace to track her dad down before they lose the place. It’s mid-winter, her brothers are hungry, and her extended family – the descendants of an Irish Traveler clan who made this part of the Ozarks their own lawless kingdom – know more about her dad’s vanishing act than they care to let her know.
Here’s the trailer for the movie. It doesn’t really do the movie justice, much less the book, but you’ll get the idea.