Noir is typically considered an urban genre. Steam drifting across rain-soaked streets, bloody scuffles in back alleys and men muttering threats in tenements streaked with stripes of sodium light -- such images mark its best-known works. But half the fun of genre writing comes in subverting conventions, in turning the expected on its head. So in Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell takes noir out of the city and plunges it deep into the Ozarks, where mountain-cast shadows grow far darker than those beneath any skyscraper.
Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s dad has disappeared. It isn’t exactly unusual for him to vanish for long periods of time given that he’s one of the best crank cooks in the Rathlin Valley. Ree’s accustomed to caring for her two young brothers and half-mad mother, so it’s no big deal. That is until Deputy Baskin shows up on Ree’s doorstep. Seems Ree’s old man used the family house to post bond after a recent arrest. The court date’s drawing near, and Baskin wants to give Ree a friendly little warning: If dad doesn’t show up, all four of them are going to get evicted from the only home they’ve ever known. To find her father, Ree will have to work her way through a stratified criminal culture deadly as the Mafia and nearly as old as the hills themselves.
Woodrell is as much in love with the setting of Winter’s Bone as the story itself, teasing beauty from the frozen, wasted hollows and poignancy out of their hard-bitten inhabitants. His prose unfolds with scarcely a missed step or a poor word choice. Beautiful and risky, because lovely diction can only sustain interest so long. Readers need plot, and there are moments there the narrative thread grows thin. Yet it never snaps completely. Ree steadfastly tracks her father though a succession of encounters with characters that rival Flannery O’Connor’s creations in grotesquery. A crank chef who lost half his face in a meth lab explosion. A blonde rogue who likes to persuade with fists and firearms. A trio of matronly sisters who use their steel-toed boots for more than trekking through the hills. If Winter’s Bone wavers, it’s in the old challenging of walking the razor’s edge between genres. Crime fiction fans may yearn for more action, while lovers of literature could find themselves discomfited by a climax involving axes and chainsaws. But Woodrell keeps his balance the whole way through, a feat worthy of witnessing no matter your genre bent.
(Picture: CC 2005 by Eisenvater)