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Daniel Woodrell
Voice Of The Other Ozarks

By Lin Waterhouse

Ozark novelist Daniel Woodrell doesn't speak for the shepherd of the hills or for devout church social ladies or for thundering evangelists. He speaks, instead, for another Ozarks, a place that is perhaps best described by character Doyle Redmond in Woodrell's "Give Us a Kiss, A Country Noir": "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."

That "darker, semi-lawless, hillbilly side" is the world of Daniel Woodrell's fiction.

Although he was born in the Ozarks, Woodrell grew up living a Tom Sawyer-esque boyhood in northern Missouri. After dropping out of high school, he joined the Marines for a time then drifted until landing at the University of Kansas. There his writing skills blossomed, and he was awarded a Michener Fellowship at the Iowa Writers Workshop where he excelled at not fitting in. His first novels, "Under the Bright Lights," "Muscle for the Wing," and "The Ones You Do," earned him a cult following and accolades as a writer's writer.

Eleven years ago Woodrell and his novelist wife, Katie Estill ("Dahlia's Gone," St. Martin Press, January 2007), moved from San Francisco to his maternal grandparents' neighborhood in West Plains and into a house where his mother played as a child. In this neighborhood, streets are too narrow for two cars to pass, and wood frame shotgun shanties and 100-year-old mansions coexist under aged oaks and sycamores.

"I used to think I didn't want to live in West Plains," he says. "My family has been around here since the Civil War. They had a lot of struggle. I can feel it sometimes, [but now] I feel like I've found my true orientation and calling."

The other Ozarks
"The Ozarks were founded by people who basically wanted to be left alone," he says. "There's a strong strain of that still left alive. Mind your own business. Whatever we're doing on our land is our business. On one hand there's much to applaud about that - resistance to homogenization, not trying to be like everyone else."

However, Woodrell's characters live on the negative side of that mind-set, trapped by cultural prejudices and predeterminations, assaulted by the present with little hope for the future. Lacking in, and disdainful of, education and numbed by substance abuse, their lives are bleak. Yet despite their warts, they display a solid morality. "Within their social reality, they do go by the rules. It's just that when that reality comes into contact with this reality, it looks devious."  

Woodrell's creations, "groomed to live outside square law and to abide by blood-soaked commandments," inhabit rotting boxes in seedy trailer parks, airless rooms in fire-trap rooming houses, and patchwork shacks tucked away in the hills and hollers of rural Missouri. Pot growing, meth cooking, and petty larceny are their vocations and professions. Woodrell's laser-point prose etches vivid portraits of the Ozark landscape and people. Raucous and poignant, foreboding and uplifting, bone-grinding and mystical, his work speaks of the underclass ignored or denigrated by polite society.

West Plains

West Table, Missouri, the setting for Woodrell's Ozark novels, parallels his real-life hometown of West Plains. The town of just over 10,000 people is a bustling commercial center in southwest Missouri - "20 miles north of the Arkansas line in the bull's-eye heart of the Ozarks." True to its staunchly fundamentalist Christian roots that extend deep into the 19th century, the town is a place of many churches, few bars, and little tolerance for worldly pretensions.

In Woodrell's recently released eighth novel, "Winter's Bone," 16-year-old Ree Dolly sets off on a quest through her maniacal clan to locate her father, a meth chef of legendary skills. Daddy Jessup put up their rundown homestead as collateral for his bail and disappeared. As his court date nears, his continued absence jeopardizes the family's hold on their shabby refuge. The sole caregiver to her enfeebled mother and two younger brothers, "wailing little cyclones of want and need," Ree dreams of escaping her luckless life by joining the Army, but first she must preserve their home. "Either he stole or he told" is her fear, and she knows the deadly penalty for such sacrilege. As Ree searches with relentless determination, she seeks help from menacing family types such as her Uncle Teardrop, like "something fanged and coiled" with his prison tattoos and his hinky meth-energized personality. He warns that her search is "a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishin' you was."

"Country noir"
Early in Woodrell's career, reviewers struggled to identify his genre and described his books as mysteries. "I didn't want any more reviews in which they called me a mystery writer," he says, so to correct the misconception he coined the term "country noir" to describe his work. Traditional "noir" is specific, requiring inevitable tragedy. Yet most of Woodrell's stories proffer a shred of optimism for the less unfortunate of his characters. "The noir label is a bit limiting and hardly anyone knows what it means." Today, he prefers the classification of social realism or crime fiction.

Woodrell's finesse with southern locales, small town personalities, and gothic themes has earned him comparison to William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Flannery O'Connor. No stereotypes like Branson's dumb but musically talented hillbillies or "Deliverance" psychotics reside there. Clever analogies and brilliantly descriptive passages mark his work as when he writes "his pistol shined like a Shreveport pimp's favorite teeth" or "Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower, plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them."

Woodrell's 1987 Civil War saga, "Woe To Live On," was made into the movie "Ride with the Devil" in 1999. Directed by Ang Lee and with a cast that included Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, and Jewel, the story portrays the savage guerilla warfare that enflamed the Missouri-Arkansas border during and after the Civil War. Despite opening to rave reviews in Europe, the film was released to select theaters in the U.S. and then quietly dismissed to rental venues. Woodrell believes the movie suffered from an ignorance of American history. "The studio was uncomfortable about a black guy riding with Confederates, even though they knew it was true."

Despite his disappointment over the movie's fate, Woodrell speaks positively about the process. He has high praise for Ang Lee's directorial style, and he says James Schamus, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lee, conferred regularly with Woodrell over even small details of the movie that remained resolutely faithful to the book.

Woodrell's attitude toward his community isn't jaded. "I recognize the whole big, round picture of the Ozarks, all the generosity and kindness that goes on here. We've encountered overwhelming small town generosity."

He recalls a book talk for one of his novels on a raw winter night in Kansas City. In the front row sat a family dressed in rough clothes with homemade quilts over their laps. After the event, they approached him. They said the heater in their old car was busted, thus the quilts to keep them warm, but they wanted to drive up from their home in Shell Knob, Missouri, to thank him for giving voice to people like them. "[That's the kind of Ozark folks] I think I'm going to be writing about for a ways to go."

Lin Waterhouse lives and writes from Dora, Missouri, near West Plains. She is a regular contributor to Ozarks Magazine.