Thanks to the success of the Academy Award nominated film Winter's Bone based on his novel of the same name, Daniel Woodrell has received wider recognition as a one of today's most significant literary voices. Another fantastic film Ride With The Devil was based on Woodrell's Civil War novel, Woe To Live On. The director's cut of that movie remain a largely undiscovered classic. Woe To Live On also marked the point at which Woodrell's writings began to exclusively feature the Ozark settings of his home state of Missouri.
Although Woodrell might be best known for his Ozark stories, his first three published novels were pulp noir detective tales set in a fictional Louisiana river town. Those three novels - Under The Bright Lights, Muscle For The Wing, The Ones You Do - have been compiled and thankfully reissued as The Bayou Trilogy.
The Bayou Trilogy's three novels focus on a fictional Louisiana river city north of New Orleans named St Bruno. The lead character is a failed boxer turned police detective named Rene Shade. However, these books aren't mere detective stories. They tell the story of the town itself - the corruption, the crime, the class differences, and the racial lines which lead to most of the pain and hurt that people suffer.
The books also deal with the deep ties of family, and the Shade family alone provides a perfect canvas for these stories. Raised by his pool hall-running mother and harboring only a distant memory of his pool shark father who left the family while his children were still young, Rene Shade is a former thug and boxer who is trying to live a straighter path by being a police detective. Rene's older brother Tip is a bar owner who often aids and provides comfort to the shadier criminal elements in St Bruno that Rene is trying to take down. Rene's youngest brother Francois is a district attorney who has married into the country club set, so he isn't particularly helpful to Rene either since many aspects of Rene's criminal investigations have ties to St Bruno's establishment.
Beyond the Shades, there are also the larger family ties within the different ethnic groups, criminal organizations, and long time political alliances. One of the larger themes in all of the novels concerns how one incident can create many ripples across the pond that is St Bruno.
Under The Bright Lights revolves around murder investigation of a local African-American political leader. Muscle For The Wing follows the deadly path of a group of out of town ex-cons looking to rob St Bruno's criminal "establishment". The Ones You Do mainly centers around the unexpected arrival of the Shade patriarch, John X Slade. Rene suspects that his homecoming has a darker side to it, and he's right.
Like all of Woodrell's work, The Bayou Trilogy teems with a visceral quality not often achieved. His use of violence creates an edge that few writers have mastered. It is perhaps one of the reasons that New York magazine says, ""What people say about Cormac McCarthy ... goes double for [Woodrell]. Possibly more."
The new found interest in Woodrell's work has allowed him to look back on these early novels. Since they appear to be so different than the literary avenues he has traveled since, the publishing of The Bayou Trilogy has given him a chance to reflect on his first published works:
A lot of verve and energy are apparent. 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. Rough and refined. Oddly, I see more scenes of a faintly or strongly autobiographical nature in these early novels than I remember.
Woodrell's mother comes from Louisiana French roots in East Texas and he spent part of his youth in St Charles, MO, another French-settled city. In the same ways that his later work focuses on his father's Ozark family roots, The Bayou Trilogy gives Woodrell a chance to look at his mother's.
Regardless of place or ethnic background, Woodrell's writing in The Bayou Trilogy both delivers a worthy writing debut and shows the great promise that would be found his work that followed. The Ones You Do in particular gives an early glimpse into Woodrell's style of drawing less around plot and more around character-driven circumstance allowing him to flesh out memorable characters in ways that few writers seems to do these days.
Dennis Lehane says that Daniel Woodrell "is the least-known major writer in the country right now." It doesn't help Woodrell that so few of his novels are in print. Mulholland Books deserves praise for taking the time to put some of his catalog back in print, all of which is worth seeking out. There are no missteps in Woodrell's bibliography.
As a native son to Missouri, the home state of Mark Twain, Daniel Woodrell's work represents a completed circle of southern literature from its early founders to its modern luminaries. As the beginning of his literary journey, The Bayou Trilogy deserves a new and wider audience.
- Jim Markel
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