I recently reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s “Bayou Trilogy” for Reviewing the Evidence. Woodrell came across my radar when I saw the film adaptation of his book Winter’s Bone, which was a tense, atmospheric, and evocative story of a young girl trying to step into her parents’ shoes, to save her home and take care of her two younger siblings. I decided to wait for the images of the film to subside a little before reading the book, so the reissue of three of Woodrell’s previous books–all starring Detective Rene Shade–was very welcome to me. And while I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you sit and read all three books in a row (that gets a bit monotonous), each maintained a very cinematic quality, as well as a flare for regional descriptions and dialog. My full review is below, or you can read it as it was published, here.
Although Daniel Woodrell has been earning the respect of critics and cultivating a devoted fan base for quite some time, his “country noir” novels, as he has named them, have garnered renewed attention in the last year, thanks to the astonishing success of the movie adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone. This spring, three of Woodrell’s early novels—starring his shambling Creole detective Rene Shade—have been republished as The Bayou Trilogy, and are sure to gain the author even more acclaim for their cinematic, gritty, and occasionally poetic portrayals of the perpetually backsliding town of St Bruno, Louisiana.
Woodrell fills St Bruno with a colorful cast of downtrodden men and women for whom double-dealing and neighborhood loyalty are a way of life. Foremost are the Shade family, who play pivotal roles in all three novels in the trilogy. There’s Ma Blanqui, owner of the pool hall where her itinerant husband, John X., had once made a name for himself before he abandoned her and her three boys. The oldest of the brothers, Tip Shade, owns the Catfish Bar, whose clientele make a habit of avoiding the police. The youngest, Francois, is an up-and-coming District Attorney. And right in the middle is Rene, a failed boxer turned cop who treads a fine line between the law-abiding and criminal worlds of his family and hometown.
Under the Bright Lights opens, as do all of the novels in the trilogy, on an over-confident, back country hood who is already in over his head, although he doesn’t know it yet. Woodrell’s first line introduction of this young would-be hit man provides the reader with a succinct initiation into the dark, subtly mocking humor, drawling dialog, and simmering violence that characterize all of the author’s work. “Jewel Cobb,” we’re told, “had long been a legendary killer in his midnight reveries and now he’d come to the big town to prove that his upright version knew the same techniques and was just as cold.”
Muscle for the Wing, the second novel in the trilogy, finds Rene rekindling the soured friendships of his past in order to track down the killer of a local policeman who worked as a guard for underground poker games frequented by some of St. Bruno’s most powerful men. The Ones You Do introduces Shade’s infamous ne’er-do-well father, John X. Shade, who is on the run with his adolescent daughter (Rene’s half sister) after her momma ran off with a local gangster’s fortune.
The novels are all very similar—especially in tone and pacing—which can lend to monotony if read in quick succession. Woodrell’s plotting is also a bit shaky: in particular, the racially-charged murder and political scandal in Under the Bright Lights quickly becomes muddled and its resolution is a bit over-determined. But plot is really a secondary concern here. Woodrell has a spot-on ear for the patois of his bayou residents and a gift for characterization that extends into the psyches and pasts of both his anti-heroes and their adversaries.
Each of the novels in the trilogy opens at a running start, and Woodrell keeps up the constant, frenetic pace throughout the books. The stories all unfold over the course of a few days, and are staged in a series of iconic locales: the Marais de Croche swamp, underground poker games, a strip club on the edge of town, an elegant and crumbling cathedral. It’s no wonder that two of Woodrell’s novels have been made into movies (prior to Winter’s Bone his book Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee). Reading his novels, one can easily imagine watching them unfold on screen.