DANIEL WOODRELL: Life Outside The Tent

illustration by Jim Blanchard ©

The good world, regular happy life, I never
had no hand in that, so it’s interesting for
me to watch it. They seem so sure of their road
and what they’ll pass by along the way and what
they’ll find at the end
.”
—Sammy Barlach, from Tomato Red

If Arkansawyer Donald Harington holds claim to the title of “The Country’s Best Unknown Writer” it is only because Daniel Woodrell has recently vacated the post. In fact, a town has just been burnt down in Woodrell’s honor to celebrate his arrival into the Big Time. Well, not really. Woodrell has been on the set of the upcoming movie version of his 1987 novel Woe to Live On, where an entire town was indeed purchased and made-up to look like 1880’s Lawrence, Kansas, only to be burned to the ground in approximation of William Quantrill’s notorious massacre. When I ask him what his impressions are of the multi-million dollar film he seems impressed with it but hesitant to pass judgment until it is finished. “I’m kind of superstitious about these things,” says the soft-spoken author, “but it just looked really good. The actors are real actors and not just pretty boys.” He adds, “Man, the sight of a hundred of those guys dressed up to look like Bushwhackers screaming bloody murder was... pretty wild.”

With the movie slated for a 1999 release, all of his novels back in print, and a brand new one, Tomato Red, getting major critical attention Woodrell is finally sitting pretty after years of struggle and hard work. It seems somewhat ironic that Woe to Live On, the book that received the least amount of notice when it first appeared, would be the one that would bring Woodrell out of his relative obscurity. Kind of fitting though, considering it is still the author’s favorite of his own books, and is the one that many readers (myself included) consider to be his masterpiece thus far. I’ve been anxious to ask him about the book’s history and begin by querying him about the title. “The title’s origins are a mystery to me now. Everyone asks and I don’t remember just where my thoughts were roaming back then. I definitely knew once, if that’s any help! It was a short story first, in the Missouri Review and then in Editor’s Choice, an anthology.”

What most readers notice immediately upon reading the book is the eerily authentic sounding voice. Jake Roedel, a teenage member of the First Kansas Irregulars (a raggle-taggle group of confederate renegades that roam the countryside disguised in Union garb) is the book’s narrator, and Woodrell does a masterful job of capturing the cadences of an older era, the understatedness, the bizarre mixture of proper Victorian English and hillbillyspeak. Woodrell seems pleased when I tell him that the only book I’ve ever read that even comes close to it is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “Cormac McCarthy is a hero of mine, and [a hero] for about every good writer I know, especially Outer Dark, Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, Suttree and Blood Meridian. Talk about a link to the older language! I researched Woe for years. I read all kinds of shit; journals, diaries, memoirs, etc. The voice I used seemed to me to approximate the voices I encountered in research. Mark Twain lurks behind it all as well. James Schames (screenwriter for the movie) has called it ‘a post-Vietnam rewrite of Huckleberry Finn.’ A lovely comment, though my intentions were less specific, I reckon anyhow. My family is from the Ozarks and has been since the 1840s. West Plains [Missouri, twenty or so miles north of the Arkansas border] has been the family center since the war (1865). I technically squirted free of mama in Springfield as that was the nearest decent hospital in those days. This is a culturally remote spot—sociologists refer to the Ozarks as a semi-arrested frontier. The war hit everyone in this state. I grew up hearing bits and snatches and was fascinated. I had ancestors all over the conflict, including more than one alleged Bushwacker. The history of Missouri in the war is unique and savage and under-reported to this day.”

How did the film come about, one naturally asks, after so many years? “The film is a fine and wonderful accident of sorts. A woman from the production company remembered it from 1987 and brought it to the attention of Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility). From there the accident just got more wonderful, as you know.” The movie stars Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker Denny, and the singer Jewel in her debut role (must admit I’m dubious at that choice, but we’ll see).

“I’ve always wanted to write,” maintains Woodrell, “as did my father who published some humor bits in the ’50s, then quit because of the economics involved.” When Woodrell was in his late teens the Vietnam War had erupted and he is quick to admit the profound influence it had on his life and work. “I went into the Marines the week I turned seventeen. The war was in full stink but I never was sent (despite twice volunteering). I grew up with the war buzzing all around my head and the various attitudes and influences the war brought to me cannot be overstated, as I now realize. I was part of the very angry and seriously alienated youth, and, I think, one of the ones who has never tried to find a way back to the mainstream. I like life as it is lived outside the tent. I do not belong inside the tent and it would be a mistake to ask me in.”

Woodrell soon became serious about his writing and, after earning a Bachelor’s degree, eventually ended up at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Being a blue collar kid automatically made him an outcast as he discovered that many of his peers were trust funders from wealthy East Coast families. Another thing that he immediately found oppressive was the impractical and romanticized ideas of what Literature (with a enlarged capital L) was supposed to be about. He would later satirize academia viciously and to great comic effect in 1996’s Give Us a Kiss. Naturally, any kind of “genre” writing—detective fiction, science fiction, etc—was sternly frowned upon. “At Iowa all those silver cobs stuck up those refined asses resulted in a certain stiffness that did not allow any respect at all for crime fiction. I’ve always liked crime fiction even though so much of it is written at an uninteresting level of insight and creativity. When it’s good it’s as good as it gets.” Not surprisingly, when asked to cite his main literary influences, Woodrell puts Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Elmore Leonard right up there with Faulkner, Hemingway, Don Carpenter, Nelson Algren, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson and Madison Jones.

Written mainly while at Iowa after winning a James Michener fellowship, Woodrell temporarily shelved Woe to Live On to publish Under the Bright Lights, his first in a series of three detective novels set in St. Bruno, Louisiana. The fictional town, Woodrell says, “has two or three things in common with six or eight places. A touch of New Orleans, a spritz of St. Charles, Missouri, a whiff of Cape Girardeau, Baton Rouge and a few things from all the joints and hoods I’ve passed through or even just heard about.”

The St. Bruno books focus primarily on detective Rene Shade, a former delinquent hellraiser who, as the author puts it, has “since endeavored to go down that endless crooked road that was somehow misnamed the straight and narrow.” The middle of three brothers (as is Woodrell), Shade is alternately at odds with and fiercely dedicated to his two siblings. Older brother Tip is a hulking, burly tavern owner while Francois, the youngest, is a successful executive. The matriarch of the Shade family, Ma Blanqui, owns a small poolroom, swears incessantly, and keeps the boys in line. The father, John X Shade, notorious womanizing, gamblin’ poolshark ne’er do well, has long since left the scene, but returns to St. Bruno in the series’ final (and in my opinion best) entry, The Ones You Do. These books are all remarkable and are much more than simply crime novels, although they do possess the sheer muscularity, the atmosphere and the attitude that one normally associates with the genre.

When I ask Woodrell if he dislikes being called a crime writer and if he finds the tag limiting, his response is revealing: “Well, such labels are meant to segregate writers, to keep mutts such as me chained in our yards so we don’t get too rough on the pure-bred delicate designer dogs over on the big house lawn. I don’t care for labels but they are going to be applied regardless of what I think, so, if possible, apply your own. Pick carefully.”

This leads to a discussion of the current trend in publishing to classify everything that could remotely be called mystery or detective fiction “noir.” Of course, having such a label at all implies that there be some kind of definition of what in the hell noir is exactly. “Noir is a term I now try to avoid,” says Woodrell. “The definitions are too diffuse. To me noir means a fatalistic worldview, and not so because of carnage but because of the existential realities of being alive. Fate lives in your own dark closet and it’s you who opens the door, see? You are trapped, but you have assisted the traps being sprung. It is the psychology of noir I love, not the corny bullshit about body parts and torture scenes and neon lights, etc—I think a great noir could be written with no action of an overt sense at all [such as Willeford’s The Pick-Up, I submit]. I do think that crime fiction has gotten richer and deeper because there has been considerable seepage between styles of fiction (all crime writers should read Carver, for instance) and the kind of writer who plunges into crime is not from as narrow a bunch as was once the case. Certain figures, Elmore Leonard especially, blew the doors open.”

It’s been amusing to see his publisher struggle to come up with a way to describe his most recent books, Give Us a Kiss and Tomato Red. They defy easy classification, but “Country Noir” really does seem as good a term as any. Published in early 1996, Give Us a Kiss was Woodrell’s breakthrough book and brought him to a much larger readership. It is also perhaps his most personal. Doyle Redmond, a writer of crime novels (and a graduate of Iowa), takes off from California in his wife’s Volvo after discovering the pretentious wannabe writer cavorting with a visiting poet at a academic-infested party. Here’s how Redmond describes the scene: “I felt myself evolving into a poem.

A poem being composed as we sat there, the party music in the background, the lover at the party, the huge trees above us, the dry grass, and the marriage that had come to an end. She was entombing me in blank verse while her eyes never left my face, and I hoped to God and the devil I wouldn’t ever let myself read it.” The book is filled with such entertaining digs at pseudo literary people, and Woodrell says that “most folks I’ve spoken with who shared the experience have dug the book, and several much older academic women have indicated that they rolled on the carpet guffawing with recognition upon reading the book.”

Redmond eventually ends up deep in the Ozarks, where he has been sent on a mission by his parents to find and bring his brother Smoke, a fugitive from justice, out of hiding. The landscape and the way of life that Woodrell portrays here has been too seldom written about. He writes that “back behind the smiles and homespun manners and classic American hokum there’s a whole nother side of life, a darker, semi-lawless, hillbilly side. The side of my homeland that has always attracted me... and held my respect.”

He finds that Smoke has been busy growing a very profitable weed crop, and when his older brother offers Doyle a tax free chunk of change to support his writing or, as Smoke calls it, “a hillbilly endowment for artsy bullshit,” Doyle can’t refuse. An added perk is the nubile young Niagra, an Ozark bred Carson McCullersesque heroine who digs Doyle’s books, is obsessed with “goomer doctorin’” (an Ozark brand of witchcraft) and has big plans of becoming a movie starlet.

When asked about the similarities between himself and Redmond, Woodrell says: “I have a few things in common with Doyle and thought of the book as a fun fake ‘memoir’ of the type everybody whose daddy ever talked rudely to them has been writing in recent years. Being a writer is not a vocation instantly approved of by folks from my world. All bookishness has a faint or profound scent of sissiness about it to many a citizen. My own family was no different.”

Woodrell’s latest book, Tomato Red, continues in much the same spirit as its predecessor. Sammy Barlach, a drifter from a small town just over the Arkansas line, finds himself down and out in West Table, Missouri. On a crank-induced whim, he tries to make some new friends by robbing a mansion, only to fall sound asleep inside the house when the drug wears off. He wakes up and finds himself tied to a chair by a brother and sister who have also broken into the house and are posing as the rich young owners. When the cops arrive it quickly becomes apparent what is what. Inevitably, Barlach falls in with this criminal duo and their prostitute mother. Of Sammy, Woodrell says—“I like the fella but I expect very little from him that fits standard mid-class expectations. I like him very much, actually, and in some ways feel closer to him than to Doyle.”

Next on Woodrell’s agenda will be another Country Noir, provisionally titled She’ll Dance, but in the meantime he plans to do some heavy research on his long awaited continuation of Woe to Live On. Actually, in many ways the work that he has been doing has been a continuation of sorts: “The characters in Give Us a Kiss are, of course, pretty directly descended from those in Woe,” he is quick to point out. “Bloodlines, inheritance of personal values, etc.” Some of the research that he will be doing will take him below the border into Mexico, where apparently a band of confederate soldiers under one General Shelby escaped at the end of the Civil War without ever surrendering.

Dan Woodrell is a rare breed among contemporary writers. He’s busted his ass for years to support his writing, and though he is far too good to become a household name, he seems destined to enjoy the success that has long been his due. “I once did all manner of no-brain strongback grunt work, but since 1985 I have been a full tilt no apologies, no regrets freelancer. I have never held a serious job as I have certainly inherited attitude problems that encouraged me to seek elsewhere my bread and wine. I like freelancers, and I like writers who hustle and do not fear the rough and ready aspects of the marketplace.”

AMAZON

This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #40.

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