Going up the country – the rise of rural lit (and why you need to be reading it)

I just came across a great online piece written last year by Keith Rawson called: It’s More Than Just Meth Labs and Single-Wides: A Rural Noir Primer. First of all, that’s a great title. More importantly, if the terms rural noir, country noir, country crime, or hick lit don’t mean anything to you, then listen up. Maybe you’re already reading it and just didn’t know what to call it (neither does anyone else really, hence all the grab bag terminology). If you’re not reading it, I’m here to convince you of why you need to start.

american salvage

American Salvage: Stories
Bonnie Joe Campbell

These are tales about ordinary folk trapped in dead-end places in dead-end lives who don’t even have the wherewithal or wisdom to get the hell out of Dodge even if it means chewing their own goddam leg off to do so. No matter how beautifully written — the stories reveal a kind of brutalization lined with a deep and abiding sadness. People are desperate — or deranged — and behave accordingly. Sometimes it’s because of crushing poverty, other times it is because of inheriting a mantle of family violence that stretches back countless generations. I don’t know what that says about me that this sort of visceral reading experience appeals to me, but it does. Perhaps it’s the cold comfort that no matter how bad my life seems at any given moment on any given day, it will never be as bad as that.

For the 21st century urban dweller, roots firmly embedded in concrete and steel, the rural landscape has become mysterious and alien (and a little unsettling). As the Coen brothers were quick to point out in the tagline for their Oscar-winning film Fargo: A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. What we’re seeing is a rising breed of novelist that seeks to show us exactly what that looks like. Patterns begin to emerge of settings devastated by economic collapse and shrinking populations. Communities no longer able to thrive by farming, factory or mining work are left vulnerable to a sad litany of drug dependency, alcoholism, violent crime, domestic violence, depression and suicide.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the genre is distinctly an American one, being written post 9-11, post wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and post the financial meltdown and government bailouts. There’s been a human cost to all of this, that’s manifesting itself in some very heartbreaking and frightening ways in rural settings noted for their isolation. What all this doom and gravitas adds up to is some phenomenal writing by extremely talented authors. The work may not always be uplifting, but it never stops being compelling.

Check out Country Noir on Goodreads
and the Rural Noir board on Pinterest.

I’ve been adding these books to a shelf called ‘Good Country People‘ named after the short story by Flannery O’Connor (you can read it here). There’s still so much I have yet to explore, but here I will offer my thoughts on several five star reads to get you started. Writing doesn’t get any better than this, in any genre.

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winters boneWinter’s Bone ★★★★★
Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell is a master of his craft. His prose is poetry and grit. Winter’s Bone is a stinging portrait of impoverished life in the Ozarks, where kin saves as often as it condemns. The hill people of Ree’s world live by their own laws separate from that of the state — of paramount importance, don’t be a snitch and mind your own business. Bad things happen to anyone who talks too much or asks too many questions. Unfortunately, sixteen year old Ree has a lot of questions that need answering with only her to ask them. Left on her own to protect a shattered mother and two helpless kid brothers, Ree is desperate to uncover the whereabouts of her meth-making father. She must venture into the cold and ice and pass over hostile thresholds where she is neither invited nor wanted.

Woodrell is not out to romanticize this hill life or the hardscrabble characters living it. He wants us to see the ugly, to feel it in our bones, but for all of that there is tremendous beauty here as well, in the simplicity of a proud people who do what they must to survive in an environment that does not forgive weakness or stupidity lightly.

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devil all the timeThe Devil All The Time ★★★★★
Donald Ray Pollock

Pollock writes gritty, raw, uncompromising prose that snaps and bites at your soft spots. Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, Pollock’s debut novel is a tangled web of tales about a desperate father who cannot save his wife from the grave, whose grief will derange him; his young son who grows into a man haunted by his mother’s death and his father’s insanity; a psychopathic couple cleaved together through sex and violence haunting the back roads of America hunting for their next perfect victim; and a spider handling preacher with a wheelchair bound partner on the run from the law and a dark past of their own.

Pollock is able to juggle multiple narrative threads, do each of them justice, and have them collide and intersect with one another in a convincing, satisfying way. He makes it look so easy. This is a dark novel, full of dark deeds that promises neither redemption nor offers any hope. I found parts of this novel very difficult to read, and not because Pollock is explicit in his descriptions, because he isn’t. He refrains from showing the reader everything, leaving room for what you can imagine. But his prose is vivid nevertheless, and there are scenes from this novel that I will never forget.

knockemstiffAlso not to be missed is Pollock’s collection of short stories Knockemstiff. What can I say? It knocked me flat on my ass. The writing is lean, mean and precise. I’m amazed how quickly Pollock was able to drop me into any story and feel like I’d been reading about the characters for hundreds of pages already. Also adding to the overall reading experience here is the fact that many of these stories interconnect so that a character from one will reappear in another, usually older and even more damaged than when we first meet them. This gives the collection a kind of coherency where the sum is far greater than the individual parts. And of those opening sentences? Here are a few of my favorites. By reading these I think you’ll be able to tell whether this collection is for you or not.

Real Life: My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

Hair’s Fate: When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely. Daniel liked to pretend that anyway. He needed the long hair. Without it, he was nothing but a creepy country stooge from Knockemstiff, Ohio–old people glasses and acne sprouts and a bony chicken chest.

Fish Sticks: It was the day before his cousin’s funeral and Del ended up at the Suds washing his black jeans at midnight. They were the only pants he owned that were fit for the occasion.

Bactine: I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.

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crooked letterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter ★★★★★
Tom Franklin

Franklin’s descriptions of human isolation and loneliness are so raw and uncompromising I forced myself to take breathers between reading sessions. I don’t think this is a book meant to be read in one gulp; it is made up of so much complexity and depth that it’s better to sip from its well, savor what you’ve tasted, and then go back for more.

This book had me at hello: it’s set in the American south, it features the mess of family dynamics, and secrets big and small stalk its pages. It is a coming-of-age story and at its center are two boys — Silas and Larry. Their lives intersect in ways neither could have predicted, and one of them must carry the pain and punishment of that connection his entire life. It is a heavy burden, but I will say not without redemption.

I love Larry Ott — not only is he a die-hard Stephen King fan, despite years of being ruthlessly cast as town pariah, Larry quietly goes on about his business. He is not consumed by bitterness, or enraged by the unfairness of the abuse that has been heaped upon him. That takes a strong man, and this is what probably made me the most sad is that Larry doesn’t know how great and kind a man he really is. Beaten down first by his father, then by the town, he is prevented from discovering his true qualities of inner strength and dignity. Read this book. It is beautiful. So very sad, but beautiful.

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Last but not least there’s the ferocious and insane Frank Bill. I have recently discussed both his collection of short stories and his debut novel Donnybrook. Clicking on the book covers will take you to my reviews.

Crimes in Southern Indiana donnybrook

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Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. Amanda

     /  April 25, 2013

    Really great write up! I dip in and out of this genre. Living in the rural South, a lot of this can hit a little too close to home sometimes.

    Reply
    • Thanks! There’s definitely a voyeuristic element to these novels. Without any hard evidence to support this, I’m thinking they appeal more to city dwellers and it becomes an exercise in the worst you can imagine, a vicarious experience from a vantage point of relative safety and comfort. Put in that kind of context it makes me feel like a vampire! Perhaps there is a cathartic value for the very real people and places these authors write about, but I have to think it’s more “why would I want to read it if I’m living it, or have to see it all around me?” That I can definitely understand.

      Reply
  1. Noir classic still thrills and chills | Busty Book Bimbo

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