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Daniel Woodrell has respect if not fame after 'Winter's Bone'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2011 - Daniel Woodrell is still no household name but he might just reach that level. Maybe. As evidence, consider his new book of stories, "The Outlaw Album." In preparation for an interview with Woodrell, I requested some of his earlier books from St. Louis County Library. Some they did not have at all, but they do have more than 20 copies of the new one, all already requested and on hold. And the book was just published this month.

Woodrell is a seriously good writer, who has now published nine books since 1986, two of them made into major movies. He has also won half a dozen writing awards, and earned the long-term respect of fellow novelists.

When Woodrell won the Clifton Fadiman Award for Fiction in January this year from the Center for Fiction, he was introduced by Dennis Lehane, author of "Mystic River." Lehane said that when he himself began publishing in the mid-1990s, all his writer friends were talking about how good Woodrell was. Lehane has also said that "Woodrell is the least-known major writer in the country right now." That was five years ago and may still be true.

Woodrell's new book of 12 stories, "The Outlaw Album" (Little, Brown, $25), is a worthy successor to his most recent novel, "Winter's Bone" (2006), which seems to keep on growing more famous. That novel was made into an small-budget independent film that won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture.

Like "Winter's Bone," "The Outlaw Album" is filled with trim laconic stories of mostly hard-dirt people, living around the Ozarks of southern Missouri near the Arkansas border. They are outlaws, indeed, generally mistrusting "the law" by definition and ready to take any problem into their own hands, often using a handy nearby firearm.

The stories are mostly -- and oddly -- encouraging in their willingness to see a strong, worthwhile spirit in what look like dastardly deeds. With few exceptions, the stories are not-quite-negative statements about human response. Would you kill someone who killed your dog? Hunters automatically know the kind of thinking that mountain people would give that question.

What would you do to a serial rapist, if you really could? But what if he were your own uncle now in a wheelchair? Wait -- what if you yourself put him there? And would you ever consider nursing him back to health? Plus still more twists. All in 10 cold pages.

Woodrell's stories plumb dark and primitive depths. They include homicides, suicides, abductions, arson, thievery, grotesque accidents and just plain weird events. But those depths are always too recognizably human.

Of Woodrell's eight earlier novels, three were set near New Orleans, most of the others in the Ozark mountains and one, "Woe to Live On," was about Quantrill's Raiders. It was made into a 1999 movie directed by Ang Lee and titled, "Ride With the Devil." Starring Tobey Maguire, the underrated Jeffrey Wright, and the surprising Jewel, that movie was first widely ignored but is slowly building a stronger reputation.

The New Orleans novels, now reissued together as "The Bayou Trilogy," come close to being murder mysteries, but with curious twists. Maybe Woodrell's early readers expected an endless series of such thrillers. But he shut down the series pretty firmly by having his sullied detective-hero, Rene Shade, quit police-work altogether.

Instead, Woodrell has turned to writing stories of the Ozarks where he was born, moved away from, then returned to. He has lived in West Plains, Mo., for the past 25 years and is probably considered a returning "local boy."

In the roustabout pattern of many a U.S. novelist, Woodrell dropped out of school, joined the Marines, lived up and down the Mississippi River, worked at odd jobs, then turned to writing. To his surprise, he was admitted to the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop and has gone on to critical acclaim, but with somewhat limited public recognition.

I talked to him last week about his work and his little-known connection to St. Louis. Through most of elementary school and into ninth grade, Woodrell lived in St. Charles, when the town was still largely rural and "undeveloped." He says he used the old town center for much of the French atmosphere in his Bayou Trilogy.

The three novels, set in the fictional town (maybe the whole "parish") of St. Bruno, is Woodrell's noted construction of a self-contained little world that allowed him to combine raw realism with his own chosen cultural mix. Woodrell's readers know that St. Bruno included a Frenchtown (also called Frogtown), a "white" downtown, and a "black" section called Pan Fry, all in seamy proximity, none very attractive, except to the fiercely loyal residents.

Woodrell told me the Frenchtown/Frogtown of St. Bruno was based on the actual Frenchtown area of St. Charles, known to this day.

While Woodrell did turn away from the French-influenced downriver stories of murders, mysteries and human corruption, he kept one key feature of his writing, which he has discussed often. He likes to present high and low characters in high and low language, usually in what seems like a "local" mix. Basically he has just changed the mix from Louisiana French to Missouri Ozark.

The result has been tagged "country noir," a term Woodrell claims is too limiting. Probably his own fault, though, after he named one of his novels "Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir" (1996).

Woodrell is admired for his nugget-like lines that readers can savor. Sometimes a sentence stands alone: "Your own mind can gut you good so easy."

Sometimes a window to the outside opens, as when a country girl looks at a courageous newcomer: "She did not speak, but looked back at Morrow twice, glancing over her shoulder. She had muddy hands and unbridled hair, and her face suggested she'd yet to be pleasantly surprised by life."

Sometimes separate worlds (here a prison teacher and an inmate's father) slam each other in a scene, shrewdly, weirdly:

"Well she say. He seems sensitive to her.

Oh he can do that lady. He could do that years ago.

You are a hard nut she tells me. He is lost without you. His parole could be denied.

Tell me why do you care? I ask her this but my suspicion is she would like to give Cecil lessons in gaiety.

Because I admire his talent Mister McCoy."

In the scene above, the culture clash is clear enough between the nice prison-teacher lady and Cecil McCoy's old daddy. But one word -- gaiety -- shows us that Mister McCoy's subtle skills will outlast the woman's complacent sophistication.

One of Woodrell's characters says of the Ozarks that "he liked everything about the place ... and these untamed people who shot at things to so plainly announce their sorrow." The author would probably agree. He told me, "I'm often attracted to characters that I'd abhor if I had to hang out or be intimately involved with them." He stressed that "they have their humanity, too."

Woodrell is already working on a new novel, "The Maid's Version," dealing with a legendary dance-club disaster that happened in his hometown in the 1920s. The book is due out in about a year. Movie people have also shown some interest in his short stories.

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