Daniel Woodrell writes ugly as beautifully as anyone I have come across. And he found just the place to exploit his talent.
The back hollows of Missouri’s Ozarks nurture just the kind of neo-ugly we’d expect to read about only in graphic novels or pulp fiction paperbacks. Instead, Woodrell gave us literature with Winter’s Bone, an unflinchingly corrupt story told in the cadences of the ancient mountain lyrics that have chronicled centuries of poverty, isolation, crime, and fiefdoms built upon little more than blood and bone loyalties.
Ree Dolly is a 16-year-old fringe player blood-bound to the notorious and influential Dolly clan. Her daddy, a sometime cooker in the family’s crystal meth business, has skipped bail and disappeared into the lawless, change-averse hills and hollers that hold secrets more holy than God. If he doesn’t return in time for his court date, Ree, her younger brothers and dementia-addled mother—barely scraping by on grudging handouts—will lose their house, and what meager security they claim. That is the gist, the grist, the grit of story—Ree’s struggles to find her father, and save her hardscrabble home.
And here’s where Woodrell gets lyrical. The Ozarks of the Dollys has only selectively evolved. Sure, crystal meth has replaced moonshine as the prime revenue source for the entire region, but the intrigues, insularity, and the cruel hierarchy imposed by extended families are, literally, as old as the hills. It is this time rift that provides the dark ink in which Ree’s story iswritten. Given a cast of rural characters lifted out one mugshot at a time, this story could haveeasily descended into rank despair, but—while there is plenty of backwoods anguish—Woodrell draws us one character too gritty to be pitied, too flawed to be good, and too resigned to be redeemed by anything outside the harsh rules governing the only world she will ever know. She is a Dolly. If she is to prevail, she must do it the Dolly way. It is not pretty, but Woodrell—in true Ozark fashion—won’t brook compromises.
See what I mean by ugly? But I’m barely scratching the rust off a beautifully written Woodrell is very much his own writer. This is a unique novel written about a unique land and a hybrid culture he clearly knows from the inside out. Still, a couple of comparisons come to mind: James Dickey, and Cormac McCarthy. The first for his sensibility for poetic turns, the second for his unrelenting sense of time and place.
A very fair film has been made from Winter’s Bone. The director got much of it right. But nothing will substitute for the lyricism Woodrell wrote onto every page of this literate novel.
Read the book, then see the movie, or do it the other way around. I don’t care. But pay attention to this guy. He’s one of the best we’ve got.
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editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW