Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

Double Feature: WINTER’S BONE

This Wednesday, August 20, MysteryPeople is proud to present the latest and last installment of our summer Noir Double Feature series. For those of you new to the series, each event is a two-parter: we screen a film based on a book available on our shelves and then discuss the book and movie together. For our last screening, we present to you Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik‘s 2010 adaption of Daniel Woodrell’s book of the same name.

Winter’s Bone, both as a film and as a novel, presents an icy, poetic portrait of Ozark strength and suffering. The film and novel have much the same plot.  The story begins as Ree Dolly, teenage caretaker for her younger brothers and mentally ill mother, finds out that her meth cooker father has put their house up as collateral to make bail. When he fails to appear for a court date, Ree must go on a quest to find him – a quest that proves more dangerous than she could have imagined, as she works her way through relatives and members of the community in an increasingly desperate quest.

Daniel Woodrell lived the world he portrayed, and he understands that teens like Ree Dolly have few options. Ree plans to join the military, something Daniel Woodrell himself did at the age of 17. If she loses her property, she can foist her younger brothers and her mentally ill mother off on relatives. However, she knows that by doing so, she will condemn her brothers to a life of criminality and most likely prison, and she doesn’t trust others to take in her mother long-term. Knowing that she must ensure her family’s safety before she herself can leave means that she will risk any danger to ensure their future well being, and her future escape.

Winter’s Bone portrays a world where men are either obstacles or absent, and women are the forces that preserve their near-destroyed community. As Ree goes from relative to relative looking for her father, she must approach any man through their woman, and it is the women of the community that decide what information to pass on and what to hold back.

Winter’s Bone contains a beautiful reversal of noir tropes – instead of an irresponsible, violent man who has created many of his own difficulties, Woodrell has written a strong young woman who tackles challenges head-on, no matter how insurmountable her difficulties may seem. Winter’s Bone passes the Bechdel test in spades. Ree exist within a fully realized female world where topics of conversation run the gamut. She also has strong bonds of friendship that give her the courage to continue dealing with her extraordinarily difficult life.

Winter’s Bone takes place in a community where predefined roles govern each life from cradle to grave. There are no options other than to mimic the lives of those who have come before, and standing in the community is determined solely by how well you fulfill those roles. Happiness, therefore, can come only through succeeding in your role or in leaving the community entirely.

Winter’s Bone has found universal acclaim both as a novel and a film, and although the film is mostly faithful to the novel, the two compliment each other rather than acting as redundant. Winter’s Bone as a book comes in a long line of critically lauded works by Woodrell. The film catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to fame with her powerful performance, as well as bringing director Debra Granik to prominence. The film does not use sets, but uses actual Ozark houses, and this is just one part of the authenticity of Woodrell’s story and Granik’s production.

Come to BookPeople’s third floor, Wednesday, August 20, for a near-perfect movie and a perfect novel. Our screening starts at 6, and discussion of the book and film will follow the screening. As always, our events are free and open to the public. Copies of Winter’s Bone can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


 

Double Feature Stats

Adherence to book:

4.5 [out of 1-5]

Recommended films:

Ride with the Devil, In Country, Cold Mountain, Harlan County, USA

Recommended books:

Anything by Daniel Woodrell, A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor, Crimes in Southern Indiana, by Frank BillPike by Benjamin Whitmer