“Daniel Woodrell: Pulp Outlaw and Pioneer of Rural Noir” by William Blick

Woodrell’s visceral and raw prose, combined with precise perception of stark, menacing environments and characters’ flaws and virtues….deserves to be recognized as part of the American literary landscape in the tradition of Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCarthy.

Daniel Woodrell may be one of the most important writers of the 21st century. He is increasingly becoming more relevant and inclusive into the cannon of American writers. Not only is his prose, muscular and aesthetic, unique, but his singular voice resonates as he explores insular communities, providing a striking revelation about the human condition. Woodrell’s work is still limited by a lack of scholarly articles on his work. In many ways, Woodrell’s work has been overlooked and gathered in with other types of genre fiction. Yet, Woodrell’s visceral and raw prose, combined with precise perception of stark, menacing environments and characters’ flaws and virtues, allow his work to rise above the other members of the genre known as “grit lit,” which is a genre that explores disturbing settings and circumstances such as rural drug manufacturing, rivalries between familial clans, and a whole array of transgressions. Woodrell’s work deserves to be recognized as part of the American literary landscape in the tradition of Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCarthy.

Background and Authorial Style

Daniel Woodrell was able to carve a new niche in America’s literary consciousness. His work is strikingly relevant in today’s social environment and provides new insights into milieus and characters that many diverse audiences are not familiar. Woodrell’s writing history was relatively sparse and he was somewhat a factotum before he became a literary sensation. He received praise for many of his works and, Winter’s Bone, especially, was felt in literary communities across the American landscape and elsewhere. In an Esquire interview, he was named “the most overlooked greatest novelist in America” (Cabot 157).

After completing a degree at University of Kansas in General Studies, and a series of miscellaneous jobs, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop admitted Woodrell. This was the only MFA program he had applied for. He graduated with a MFA degree from the University of Iowa in 1980. Though he graduated, he admits his work somewhat is anomalous in comparison to other more conventional writers in his class. Many conventional professors had challenged him, and his presence was less than welcome by some faculty( Cabot). Critically, Woodrell’s work has been very heavily praised, and he is gaining acceptance as one the great new American novelists. Although his work is primarily genre work in mystery and hardboiled language, and has been identified as part of the movement loosely nick-named  “grit lit” or “hill billy noir,” Woodrell has managed to straddle the line between art and entertainment, and between literature and popular fiction.

Woodrell lived his life in the Ozarks as has been widely known for writing about what he had seen and heard throughout his lifetime. A saturation of influences permeates Woodrell’s work, as he is able to blend life experience with traditional genres of noir and mystery. By third grade, Woodrell knew he wanted to be a writer. He dropped out of high school and joined the US Marine Corps, in which from 1970 to 1971 he became a sharpshooter (Constantakis 318).

“Starting in 1972, he attended Johnson County Community College and also Fort Hays Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University), before graduating from the University of Kansas with a bachelor of General Studies degree. “I got my bachelors’ after years of hot-tar roofing, night-clerking at 7-Eleven, loading trucks, and so on, at age twenty-seven” (Constantakis 318). At this point in his life it was not evident that he would go on to be the phenomenon that has gripped the literary circles around the world. As with other writers, Woodrell’s real-world experiences translated into fuel for his imagination, as each book of Woodrell’s is as authentic and high in verisimilitude as a writer could hope for     

Woodrell earned 1999 PEN USA award for Fiction for his novel, Tomato Red (1998). His short story “Uncle,” originally published in A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir (2007) was nominated for a 2008 Edgar Award. He received 2010 Sundance Film Festival award for top dramatic film for adaptation of his novel, Winter’s Bone (published in 2006). The University of Missouri Kansas City awarded an honorary doctorate to Daniel Woodrell on December 17, 2016.

After such prestigious honors, no one was second guessing Woodrell’s ability to take harsh, rural noir narratives and turn them into Shakespearean-esque tragedies, whose visceral details would capture the heart and souls of many avid readers.  A series of candid interviews by magazines such as Esquire, Public Libraries Online, Literature/Film Quarterly and The Wall Street Journal reveal a great wealth of information about such an enigmatic author as Woodrell.

Woodrell has experienced some significant media coverage and has been the subject of several interviews, articles, and his work, reviewed by many major reviewing periodicals. A particularly insightful interview with Esquire was conducted by Tyler Cabot.

Tyler Cabot in a 2010 interview with Woodrell states:

These characters-country drifters and meth heads, frontiersmen and shotgun-toting women — are unknowable and mysterious to most readers. Where they live, deep in the Missouri Ozarks, where the bond of family is stronger than the bond of the law, is foreign, part of an America long forgotten. But their quiet acts of survival and rebellion edge themselves into you with their defiant simplicity (157).

Cabot comments on the clean, lean, masculine prose. He also comments on the matter-of -fact style and almost emotionless delivery, and on the relative obscurity of Woodrell. His article serves to enlighten and introduce new readers to the innovative and brutal aesthetic of the author.

The idea of “family” returns again and again throughout Woodrell’s narratives. Yet, the idea of family and morality is fragmented and somewhat dysfunctional. Woodrell offers no judgement on the characters that fill his pages, but opts to let the characters evolve organically and in manner that he has, himself, seen.

Brendan Dowling from Public Libraries Online, an open access online magazine published by the Public Library Association, interviewed Woodrell, and pointed out the insular communities Woodrell centers on including characters who know each other’s history, and who are somehow estranged from the outside world. It was asked why he focused on the lives of these characters. Woodrell admits being very familiar with people who lived these lives, but not necessarily from living them, but from them being around them  (par. 1).

Dowling’s interview is quite revealing and in it Woodrell reveals that inwardly despite his invocations of transgressive violence in his work, he despises and is afraid of violence. The interview also explores Woodrell’s understanding of the genre term “noir” which he expresses many use “elastically” and liberally. Also, discussed in this important interview is Woodrell’s aggressive writing style fraught with witty retorts and clever phrasing.

It is obvious from biographical interviews, that Woodrell took the adage “write what you know about” to a whole other level. Woodrell colors his narratives with a wide range of unsavory and also sympathetic characters based on people who he knew in passing. Also, the harsh environment of which the action unfolds strongly suggest naturalist leanings.

John Tibbetts of Literature/Film Quarterly concisely interviews Woodrell on Winter’s Bone. At the time of this interview (2011), Woodrell stated that he was only working on short fiction, but he reflected on the impact and creation of the filmed version of his novel.

Tibbetts: 1 want to quote to you a comment by D. H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Is Lawrence on to something there?

Woodrell: That certainly would cover a lot of the iconic heroes of literature, from America anyway (32).

In this interview, Tibbets explores the nature of Woodrell’s recipe for vitriolic irony and dark, memorable characters. Woodrell agrees his subject matter is dark and he describes the fact that he wants to take characters that are usually marginalized, and on the outside of society; people whom you wouldn’t usually care about and make you care. Additionally, discussion in this interview addresses Woodrell tapping into the infinite, nature of mythic, ancient storytelling (32).

Allen Barra of The Wall Street Journal interviewed Woodrell in 2013. Woodrell discusses his time at the prestigious Iowa Workshop. Woodrell expresses a disenfranchisement with Academia stating that when he graduated he had enough of standing in front of people reading his work and wanted to bring it to the public.

Woodrell states in the interview with Barra:

“The first time I submitted a story,” he recalls, “a girl in the class said, ‘Don’t you think it’s kind of cheap to open with a sentence that makes the reader want to keep reading?’ I just stared at her and thought, ‘Man, Herman Melville would have a tough time here.’ There did seem to be an attitude that the more impenetrable your writing, the better it was.” (D.5)

In the Barra interview, Woodrell indicates that he is writer that wants to be read. Additionally, he demonstrates his affinity for traditional storytelling as in Melville’s fiction. Ironically, Woodrell was tied for last in his University of Iowa class. The man he was tied with ended up working for The Washington Post. Woodrell also states that he met his wife during his time at Iowa. He explains that following that period he wrote almost nothing for 10 years. He then followed by writing “boxes” of items that didn’t go anywhere (D5).

David Bowman writing for The New York Times Book Review says of Winter’s Bone,

“(it) is as serious as a snakebite, with a plot that seems tight enough to fit on the label of a package of chew” (31). His Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests this novel will speak to readers as long as there are readers, and as long as violence is practiced more often than hope or language” (31).

The timeless themes, Bowman suggests, serve as the impetus for Woodrell’s work to become more recognized. Slowly recognition is finding his work, although he is comparable to other authors who had been neglected by celebrity whose talent is undeniable.       

Bowman’s observation of  Old Testament influences is an interesting understanding of the work. Afterall, in the Ozarks and amongst these clans including Winter’s Bone’s Dolly Clan, it appears to be “an eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth.” Yet, this sense of religiosity in their efforts is somewhat distorted. The 10 Commandments take on new significance, and by their very nature, the Dolly’s and other families like them, manufacture and distort their own codes and moralities loosely based in this sort of religiously-influenced beliefs.

Pat Bangs of School Library Journal in very concise review notices that in Winter’s Bone, “He depicts the landscape, people, and dialects with stunning realism. A compelling testament to how people survive in the worst of circumstances” (145). While Winter’s Bone dealt with the worst of circumstances, it doesn’t appear that Woodrell is particularly nihilistic. There are hints of light in the ending of the book, even if the majority is so bleak.

The strong, female protagonist, Ree, demonstrates the strength and dignity that she holds admidst the most unforgiving of conditions. Somewhere buried deep in all the wrong doings in Winter’s Bone, Rhee has an inherited a brand of clan loyalty and a quiet dignity that often roars when put to the ultimate test of finding out what happened to her father.

In Newsweek Global, the reviewer writes, “It is difficult to read anything about Daniel Woodrell without being confronted by a caravan of the usual suspects: Faulkner, Hemingway, and O’Connor; James M. Cain and Charles Portis; William Kennedy, Denis Johnson, and Cormac McCarthy” (Giraldi 1). With mighty influences and comparisons, one might expect exceptional things from Woodrell, and, critically, he has yet to disappoint.

Woodrell takes the gritty, realism of writer of 20th century pioneers and veers it into his own direction making a powerfully original stamp, often feeling antiquated, but always working to contemporize the material.

All of the aforementioned novelists paint stark pictures of humanity and, even darker, the specific flawed aspects of human nature. Again, all the authors have a visceral, aggressive quality to the writing. With themes of drug addiction and proliferation of drugs, poverty, double-crosses, unreliable, dubious intentions, and a world full of grotesqueries, Woodrell takes the gritty, realism of writer of 20th century pioneers and veers it into his own direction making a powerfully original stamp, often feeling antiquated, but always working to contemporize the material.

Mike Rogers of Library Journal in a very concise review of Woodrell’s Give Us a Kiss, explains: “Woodrell’s novels are character-driven carnivals in which plots are incidental although always a wild ride. VERDICT: The dialog here is solid and the players unforgettable” (46). A carnival of grotesqueries Woodrell provides is the primary modus operandi of Woodrell’s writing, such as the existence of Little Arthur and Thump in Winter’s Bone, and in Woodrell’s other works such as in The Bayou Trilogy. Rogers agrees that this book leaves the reader wanting more. Rogers gives a quiet nod to the novel. However, one can see that Woodrell aims for a “slow burn” over a “wild ride.” Woodrell’s work is never raucous or over the top. He favors wit and atmosphere, over gimmickry.

In a brief review by Alex Gibbons, he states about Winter’s Bone that “It feels as if we have infiltrated a closed society – and yet, rather than being voyeuristic, Woodrell’s eighth novel offers an immersing and rewarding experience” (67). Gibbons’ brief statement is a reminder the Woodrell is not a “genre exploiter”. Through the significant exploration of admittedly more seedy, underbelly of American life is gripping, Woodrell does not clutter his narrative with extraneous vulgarity or excessive gore.

A comparable author to Woodrell, though obscure, is Donald Ray Pollock (The Devil All the Time), a relatively new-comer to Rural Noir. Ray Pollock has similar backgrounds as Woodrell and he has many merits in his own right. Yet Ray Pollock is somewhat more transgressive, grotesque, and perhaps over-the-top than Woodrell. This is not a criticism, but a comparison of style that demonstrates the diversity in what seems to be a “niche genre”.

Briefly noted, an uncredited writer for The New Yorker  describes Woodrell’s short fiction collection, The Outlaw Album. It is stated that stories, such as one in which a man repeatedly returns to hack at his murdered neighbor’s corpse, show that Woodrell can be nasty for the sake of nastiness. But at his best he has a master’s ability to create tension, as when a campground owner terrorized by a local meth head is told by the sheriff, “You probably should’ve shot him while you could do it legal and get it over with” (85). Obviously, Woodrell writes about characters in a world where the rules are much different than the greater outside. Woodrell, as this note mentions, is expert at turning “the rules” on their ear (85). Though not primarily known for his short fiction, Woodrell’s work in the The Outlaw Album has walloping effect and seems to be more aggressive and less restrained than his other work. Woodrell’s work as a novelist demonstrates his artistry in more nuanced manner.

Publisher’s Weekly, also briefly mentions Woodrell’s short story collection, The Outlaw Album. The uncredited author mentions that Woodrell has created a mythical Ozark region of dark proportions apropos of William Faulkner and Mississippi. The term “country noir” occurs again and in this small mention, it is stated like many other similar reviews, that Woodrell captures the true essence of a rough little pocket of America’s heartland that has yet to be–and may indeed never be–smoothed over” (25). Though unsettling to viewers that in the heartland of America, there may lay some thick layers of depravity as in the early entry into this realm depicts, Deliverance(1970) by James Dickey, Woodrell does not play the role of a judge. He offers no morality play, and things s appear just as they are in all their stark realities, with no commentary needed. The words and deeds of the characters, grotesque or innocuous, speak volumes beyond what Woodrell articulates in his abrupt style.   

In The Chattahoochee Review, Amber Nicole Brooks discusses Woodrell’s The Bayou Trilogy. She explains: “Woodrell delivers the grit, pulp, and darkness bred of small-town isolation, but ultimately the story is about three souls in desperate search of someone to call family, some place to call home” (131). Home is a thematic concern that haunts many of Woodrell’s work. Home includes loyalty, honor, and pride, but it can also be a place of treachery and wrongdoing, as Brooks suggests. Brooks raises the question as to whether or not, Woodrell is a pulp author.

Woodrell  willingly admits: “My love for pulp and for other forms of fiction seems obvious on every page. I was and am much taken with the sort of language that can hold high and low expression in the same sentence” (qtd. In Brooks 132). Despite the crime novel descriptor, Woodrell’s work surpasses and denies labels, even Woodrell’s own. The defying of classification, the creation of  a new genre hybrid is what stands  in Woodrell’s worth.

It is worth mentioning that perhaps Woodrell obviously has roots in pulp, but is obviously transcendent of the trappings of this genre, somewhat akin to Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280). Thompson too, layered his noir with underlying psychosocial elements that were not always visible.The aforementioned begs the question as to whether Woodrell is actually a pulp author. It would appear that pulp styles have become more chic thanks to a variety of popular influences, including in no small part, Quentin Tarantino. What was admittedly dismissed as throwaway rubbish has come to have new significance. There were many influential writers to come from pulp backgrounds namely, but not limited to, Ray Bradbury who was once considered, “The Poet of the Pulps,” Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, Fredric Brown, John D. McDonald. These authors demonstrated exactly what kind of artistry lied beyond the trappings of cheap paper and exploitative covers. If Bradbury is the Poet of the Pulps, then Woodrell is a “Pulp Outlaw,” as his unconventional style makes him more influential, far exceeding limits of genre, and making him almost unclassifiable.

“Sit and Wait for the Sadness,” is a peer reviewed article in American Prospect, by Monica Potts, regarding Winter’s Bone and The Maid’s Version, as well as a derivative work by another Missouri writer, Laurie McHugh, The Weight of Blood. In it, Potts provides a general overview of the unique, insular community of the Ozarks. Furthermore, she describes Woodrell’s themes as “over-reliant on a Faulknerian rhythm,” and  “building a matter-of-fact terror–a visceral feeling that these characters can’t do anything to stop awful events from unfolding” (78-79). The sense of dread that fills most of Woodrell’s work, is often enhanced by the rhythmic quality of the writing that Potts explores. The cadence and staccato-like sentences that have often been  so popular in other works, appear in Woodrell’s works, yet there is also a yearning for poetry as evident in McCarthy’s work.

Potts also describes the film Winter’s Bone as “A meth-fueled mystery that followed Lawrence’s character as she tried to find her drug-dealer father and save her mother’s family’s land, the movie was treated by reviewers as more documentary than fiction, a portrayal of desperate poverty in a foreign patch of America” (78). The rather successful film reasserts the observant rather than preachy aspects of Woodrell. The film almost feels guerilla style or cinema verité.

Claxton of the Eudora Welty Review, in one of the few academic articles on Woodrell, observes that comparing Woodrell to Eudora Welty, another writer of southern poverty, may help readers to understand the complex history of these regions, the violence and beauty along with the exploitation of resources. (83). At the same time, the two provide new insights into class and the poor white along with different perspectives on education, family, and community. This development in understanding exactly what Woodrell represents and the populations that are underrepresented and marginalized regions, the trials and tribulations, is highly significant and essential to appreciating the breadth and depth of Woodrell.

Conclusion

Woodrell’s contribution to contemporary literature is undeniable. He walks a fine line between pulp and poetry. He explores isolated and closed-off communities and a society where codes and loyalty have different meanings then in a more mainstream world. He has a visceral, aggressive aesthetic and shows as many of the reviewers and interviewers have commented on. It is the hope that Woodrell will become part of the contemporary canon, and his work will be criticized and discussed in a long time to come.

Daniel Woodrell Bibliography

Woe to Live On (1987)

Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir (1996)

Tomato Red (1998)

The Death of Sweet Mister ( 2001)

Winter’s Bone (2006)

The Bayou Trilogy (2011) (an omnibus volume collecting Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do)

The Outlaw Album ( 2011)

The Maid’s Version (2013)

Works Cited

Bangs, Pat. “Winter’s Bone: A Novel.” School Library Journal Vol. 52. No. 8 (2006): 145

Barra, Allen. “A Cultural Conversation / with Daniel Woodrell: Ozarks Values.” Wall Street Journal. 27. Aug. 2013. Web.

Bowman, David. “Hillbilly Noir.” 2006: 31 Literature Resource Center; Gale. Web. <http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A151495159/LitRC?u=cuny_queensboro&sid=LitRC&xid=2f3bcf54>.

Brooks, Amber Nicole. “Daniel Woodrell’s Crime Undone: The Bayou Trilogy and More.” Chattahoochee Review. No.31  (2011).

Cabot, Tyler  “Daniel Woodrell/Writer: The most Overlooked Great Novelist in America is about to Enter Your Life.” Esquire. Vol. 154, No. 5 (2010b): 157.

Claxton, Mae Miller. “Eudora Welty and Daniel Woodrell: Writings of the Upland South.” Eudora Welty Review, No 6 (2014): 83-95.  

Constantakis, Sara. “Winter’s Bone.” Novels for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 48. (2015) 299-319. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Dowling, Brendan. “Chest Deep in Southern Literature: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell.” Public Libraries Online. August (2011).

Gibbons, Alex. “Backwoods Girl.” New Statesman. Vol. 135, No.4799 (2006): 67.  

Giraldi, William. “Mythos, Dirt, and Blood.” Newsweek Global Vo. 161,No.32 (2013): 1. \

Ott, Bill. “Country Noir. (Crime Novels).” American Libraries Vol. 27, No. 4 (1996): 74.  

“The Outlaw Album.” Publishers Weekly. Vol.258, No. 30 (2011a): 25.  

“The Outlaw Album.” New Yorker. Vol. 87, No. 35 (2011b): 85.  

Potts, Monica. “Sit and Wait for the Sadness.” American Prospect, Vol. 25. No. 2 (2014): 78-83.  

Rogers, Mike. “Give Us a Kiss.” Library Journal. Vol. 138, No. 7 (2013): 46.  

Sappenfield, Linda. “The Maid’s Version.” Library Journal. Vol.138. No. 20 (2013): 58.  

Tibbetts, John C. “Riddles Across the Sky”: Daniel Woodrell Talks about Winter’s Bone.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 39 (2011).  

Woodrell, Daniel.The Outlaw Album: Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2011a.  

Woodrell, Daniel. The Bayou Trilogy. Ed. Daniel Woodrell. 1st omnibus ed.. ed. New York: New York: Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Co, 2011b. .

Woodrell, Daniel. Give Us a Kiss. 1st Back Bay pbk. ed. ed. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2012a. Print.

Woodrell, Daniel. The Maid’s Version : A Novel. First Back Bay trade paperback edition.. ed. New York; Boston; London: Back Bay Books, 2013.  

Woodrell, Daniel. The Death of Sweet Mister. 1. ed. ed. New York [u.a.]: Back Bay Books, 2012b. Print.

Woodrell, Daniel. Tomato Red. Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 1998. Print.

Woodrell, Daniel. Winter’s Bone: A Novel. New York: Back Bay Books, 2007.  

Woodrell, Daniel. Woe to Live On. England: University of California. 1994. Print.

William Blick is Assistant Professor/Library at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Metal Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and other publications.

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