CBR #70 – Skunky

Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

The bloom is off the rose.  The tomato red of this tale describes the hair color of the seemingly perspicacious Jamalee.  What it seemed like it was going to be about was more intriguing than what it actually was about.  A methhead breaks into a mansion and passes out only to wake up tied to a chair by two rich kids.  They offer him a room and clam linguini, ready to hire him as a thug, when the cops show up, and everyone has to run.

You see, Jason — the most beautiful boy in West Table, Missouri — and his sister Jamalee are actually common scum like our narrator.  Jamalee wants to have a better life and escape Missouri to go to Hollywood or Palm Springs and use her brother’s looks to wile old women out of their moneys.

I actually kind of would have dug it more if it were actually about a couple rich snooty Midwesterners hiring a hayseed to be their thug.  Instead, it sort of feels like the pan scrapings of all the books that came before it.  Jamalee has inklings of Niagra from Give Us A Kiss.  Sammy the narrator, feels like the modern version of Roedel from Woe to Live On.  They fight against all the richies and the thugs and the law, same as all the other books.  In fact, this really does feel like some kind of inside-out Cruel Intentions mashup forced into the plot of Give Us A Kiss.

It’s hard to root for Sammy, because he’s such an asshole. And not the good kind of asshole that usually populates a Woodrell novel, but an actual schmuck.  He fucks Jamalee’s mama while pining for her.  He keeps making dumb decisions, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a story like that, but it just makes it difficult to give a good goddamn.

CBR #69 – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mannabis

Give Us A Kiss by Daniel Woodrell

They say write what you know.  Which is why all of my books are about sad-bastard masturbators who murder people who aggravate them.  I don’t know Woodrell or his legend.  You kind of want to believe he’s this sort of Hillbilly Hemingway, an Ozark twanging Shakespeare whittling off this noodles from the exploits of his family and friends.  So when this one features a writer returning to his roots after his poet wife cheats on him, it seems a little on the nose.

Of course, in lesser coastal parables, the author would have taken off all his clothing, and gone off to screw a coed while writing a brilliantly scathing novel about chronic masturbators with daddy issues.  Here, Doyle Redmond steals his wife’s Volvo and drives it to his parents house where he and his father, General Jo, repaint it. He’s then tasked with finding his big brother Smoke, and convincing him to turn himself into the law.  Smoke’s holed up with a big-tittied woman and her daughter, Niagra, who aspires to be a Hollywood actress. Smoke plans to buy his way out of prison with a big weed score, and convinces his brother to help him, offering him money to write the novel he’s always wanted to. Niagra’s being a sexy teen doesn’t hurt matters. And Doyle is convinced that living outlaw will make his writing better.  More authentic.  Give him purpose as it were.

I liked it but I didn’t, because it’s a very sparse tale and most of it is filled with Doyle’s pontificating about his artisanship.  If it is as I suspect, Woodrell is kind of throwing a big ol’ “Here’s yer fuckin’ Portnoy’s Complaint, y’all fuckin’ highbrow cockfisters.”  It’s essentially the same plot you’d expect on your prototypical New Yorker Summer Reading List, only deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar and served by a carny with three teeth.  Maybe I’m just overdosing on Woodrell, and so the bloom is off the rose.  Maybe I shouldn’t have started with the newer stuff first, The Outlaw Album, and Winter’s Bone, and The Death of Sweet Mister.

CBR #68 – Well, I Wouldn’t Say It Was Civil…

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell

This one’s one of Woodrell’s earliest, a novel written during the publication of the Bayou trilogy. It’s set during the Civil War, and it involves a fictional bushwhacker brigade that works in tandem with Quantrill’s Raiders in the guerilla warfare brigades out on the Missouri-Kansas border.  It mixes fact and fiction, written from the perspective of Roedel, a Dutch immigrant son fighting for the confederacy.

It’s brutal and unflinching, in language and depiction of violence.  Men are hung and left to rot, children are shot through the back, wounds fester and die.  One character gets shot through the cheek and spends the rest of the book slurring through a mouth that no longer works.  Our heroes aren’t heroic by any stretch of the imagination, but neither are the Unionists.  It seems that the history books gloss over the fact that everyone was pretty much a son-of-a-bitch during the Civil War, suffering vicious wounds, infections and pretty much wandering the countryside, burning everything to the fucking ground, killing the menfolk and doing it in someone else’s clothes.

Woodrell uses real events and real soldiers to populate his tale, or takes liberties while staying in the lines.  The raiders get involved in Quantrill’s vengeance charge on Lawrence, Kansas to smite the motherfucking Jayhawkers after they collapsed a women’s prison and murdered good Christian southern women.

The fault in the tale is that it is kind of meandering, wandering and less taut than his usual narratives.  Most of his work goes from smolder to explosion, and while there’s still this freneticism, it’s done at such a langorous pace.  Still, a well done work, just not among my favorite Woodrell works.

CBR #67 – Papa Was a Rolling Stone

The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell

The last one in the Bayou trilogy and a sweet one.  It goes backwards to go forwards.  We finally get to meet John X. Shade, The Shade Family patriarch.  He’s morosely speaking to his young daughter, a Madonna hatchlet, as he ponders his shitty fate.  His current beau, a cabaret singer in a dingy Louisiana bar, has absconded with $47,000 from a safe that belongs to a local gangster.  She’s left her daughter with John X. to pursue her singing career in Europe, where she will send for her with the Private Lear jet she intends to own very briefly.  John X. coldcocks the beefy gangster and flees with his daughter.  And of course they end up in good ol’ Saint Bruno.

Knowing Woodrell, this was coming to a bad end, and he sure damn well doesn’t honey coat it.  In fact, he rubs it in cayenne and spits tobacco juice in your mouth.  Surely the patriarch is fucked, by it’s all in the english on how Woodrell chooses to sink him.  Further complicating matters is the burgeoning relationships for the elder Shade boys.  Tip gets sweet on a pregnant hippie girl.  Rene is still courting Nicole Webb, and she finds herself pregnant.

It becomes a nice parable about the sins of the fathers and whatnot.  But it avoids getting preachy and has just the right amount of brutality and beauty to get the job done.  In another author’s hands this would have ended happily ever after or with heavier stones.  It’s a fitting end to the set.

CBR #66 – Today I Learned About Coonasses and Tushhogs

Muscle for the Wing by Daniel Woodrell

It’s not what you tell as how you tell it, and goddamn does Daniel Woodrell tell it good.  The town of St. Bruno has it’s own language, like reading foreign slang in Junot Diaz.  The second of the Bayou Trilogy tells us the tale of robbing stealing from the gangsters, a story that’s been done tons of times.  And yet Woodrell is able to make it seethe with chaw spit and moonshine.

A trio of robbers who are part of a prison gang called The Wing are hitting poker games all over St. Bruno, much to the consternation of Mr. B, the head honcho in town.  So Mr. B calls in his chips, and the captain assigns Shade to work with Shuggie Zeck, his childhood pal now turned shakedown boss.  Both are disgusted with each other and what they’ve become, but they work together to try to find out who’s knocking over the games.  And killing people.  Including a cop who was working security for the game.

The story steeps itself in double crosses and bloodshed, wife beatings and infidelity. The visceral murders are just simply gruesome, from someone getting double barrels sawed off in the face to the point his head looks like a “frayed mop” to a man getting the contents of a scalding deep fryer emptied onto his stomach and hands.  This one was the shortest and easily accessible and I really enjoyed it.  The bookamajigger has demanded I run through my Woodrell backstock, so I’m going to have a nice chaser to all this Goodkind.

CBR #65 – It’s All Been Said Before

The Third Kingdom by Terry Goodkind

As tempted as I am to just cut and paste phrases from all of my early reviews to demonstrate exactly what Goodkind has done here, I’m not gonna stoop so low.  Honestly, Goodkind continues his odious trend of basically taking four chapters to say what a paragraph could handle.  And then he repeats those four chapters later in a different four chapters when two different characters meet and have to discuss this.  If The Omen Machine was the first in what should have been a small section in a single book, this one is barely a chapter or three.

The plot is simple. Richard awakes inside a wagon listening to two men discuss whether they should eat him and Kahlan now, or wait to sell them.  Richard barely fights his way free, only to get rescue by some cave dwelling folks.  All of their magic users have been killed or kidnapped, except Sammie, their fifteen year old healer.  Because of legend, Sammie realizes that Richard is the ONE and he must close the gates in the Northern Wall to prevent the evil folks from lurching through.  Which they’ve already done.  Richard discovers all of this walking through a single cave.  For nineteen chapters.  NINETEEN.

An advertisement for Goodkind’s self-published prequel the First Confessor informs him of the plot.  I’m not even going to jovially cross that out for a larf.  I was going to skip First Confessor until I realized that Goodkind has woven that story through these last four books.  Because the emperor that Magda Searus must become confessor to stop is Sulachan, who is the leader of the Shun-Tuk, the Mad Max looking motherfuckers who are one of the many tribes from beyond The Wall who eat people.  So Richard, even though he and Kahlan have DEATH in them, must somehow make his way to the wall to save his friends because that’s where they are because of course.

I don’t want to rehash what happens.  Basically, Sulachan comes back to life thanks to Richard Juice and has joined Hannis Arc is heading to the People’s Palace to take over the D’Haran empire.  Hannis realizes that Abbot Dreier is a turncoat, and so he tries to kill him, but Dreier escapes.  Richard has rescued everyone, and now he and Kahlan are headed to the People’s Palace to be healed.  This gonna get awkward!

There are two more books left in the series: Severed Souls and Warheart, which comes out in September.  So I’m going to have read shit out of sequence.  I’m stopping this series to read First Confessor, because that gives backstory on how Sulachan became a mummy and on what they did before.  Then I’ll read Severed Souls.  THEN, I’ll read The Law of Nines, because I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment.  And then I’ll wait to see if Goodkind continues with his Magda Searus prequels, does a sequel to Law of Nines, or if he totally manages to write something new and even more boring.

CBR #64 – Crawdaddy Issues

Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell

Goddamn.  Since Winter’s Bone came out cinematically long a time ago, I’ve fallen in love with a genre I’ve deemed Midwestern Gothic.  I mean, I’ve devoured Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, who kept things southern.  But through those flyover states, have some truly gruesome goodness been birthed.  Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, and Gillian Flynn have become some of my favorite authors, penning these sinister tales of shitkickers and sketchy criminals.  Small town as seen through the scope of some truly fucked up cracker asses.  And I eat it with a goddamn spoon.

Under the Bright Lights is the first in what Woodrell deemed the Bayou Trilogy, since these stories all take place in the town of St. Bruno, which is either north Louisiana or south Mississippi.  For once, this nebulousness works for me.  I know it’s swampland shitheels, and I know that it takes place somewhere in the 80’s or 90’s.  But it could easily be the 1960’s.  It’s strange.  Men wander around, drinking all day and shooting pool and committing low level crimes.  There’s no cell phones, but there’s kids in Air Jordans.  People listen to music from the way back on record players, drinking beer and screwing on their back porches.  Sometimes even with their wives or girlfriends.

The first story deals with Rene Shade, of the Shade family, a former boxer/criminal who’s now a cop.  A local councilman, a black man, is executed in his home.  Shade and his pudgy partner How Blanchette are tasked by the mayor and the captain to pin this on a burglary, even though it all points to a murder by someone he knew.  Meanwhile, the local criminal element has hired a young tough to shotgun the man they blackmailed to commit the murder.  And so begins this supreme double dealing.  Shade’s a good guy who has a tendency towards being a little bad, and he’s dealing with bad guys set in their ways.  It’s not quite as compelling as Winter’s Bone, but it’s got a terrific style and feel reminiscent of Ellroy.  Racist small town seedy underbelly done up as a cop story.