Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell, Daniel. Bayou Trilogy [Mulholland, 2011]
Available via: Independent Bookstores; Amazon

You may have noticed my slight obsession with Justified. Well, this has led me to seek out all things country noir. That, in turn, led me to Daniel Woodrell, a crime writer I'd heard a lot about but never read. I decided to start at the beginning, something possible now that crime/speculative fiction imprint Mulholland has re-released his debut Bayou Trilogy.

Country noir is a bit of a misnomer in this case, unless you take "country" to mean "red states." After all, the Bayou Trilogy takes place almost exclusively in the fictional Louisiana city of San Bruno, a smaller version of New Orleans marked by the kind of corrupt machine politics, rampant criminality and invidious ethnic/racial divides familiar to basically all major American urban centers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The racism is more severe and frontal, because this is the South, and the Cajun "frogs" give the stories a unique ethnic flavor, but the books could easily have been transported to, say, Newark and much would have remained the same. This isn't to say that the setting is unimportant. Actually it takes main stage, and as I'll explain in more detail later on, this is both the book's strength and source of its problems.

The Bayou Trilogy comprises three novels, originally published separately: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle on the Wing and The Ones You Do. All center on Rene Shade, ex-boxer and current police officer, a mostly incorruptible local boy who doesn't particularly want to play the game or by the rules. Sound familiar? Most of the time I imagined Shade played by Timothy Olyphant, only without the Stetson. I wonder if these specific books had an influence on Elmore Leonard when he concocted the Raylan Givens character a few years later? I know James Elroy once described Woodrell as a "bayou version of Elmore Leonard," so it's not beyond the pale to imagine the influence went both ways. Or maybe it's just my imagination.

Regardless, Shade is a good character. So are most of the other core characters--Shade's untrustworthy big brother Tip, his ambitious little brother Francois, his pool-hall owner mother, his pool shark father, his sharp girlfriend Nicole and, of course, the collection of low-down hustlers, grifters, mobsters, bent cops, even more bent politicians and thugs that populate San Bruno, and especially its racially-segregated, working class 'hoods Frogtown (white) and Pan Fry (black). If you like colorful characters in colorful places, this may be the book for you.

There are, however, times where it all gets a bit too cute. See, that's the thing about colorful characters and colorful places--a spoonful is memorable; a bucketload veers towards overkill. Both Under the Bright Lights and The Ones You Do spend too much time trying to convince the reader that Frogtown is "one helluva quirky/kooky/chaotic town." They do pick up nicely and finish on high notes--particularly The Ones You Do, which has an exquisitely abrupt ending. But Muscle on the Wing is the best of the three for the precise reason that it doesn't waste too much time on this kind of stuff. Still, I guess it's better to have too much personality than not enough.

Muscle on the Wing, as it happens, is near perfect noir. It's a short, compact novel centered on a crime gone wrong and an investigation that almost never gets off its feet. It's full of hard men and harder women, all of whom occupy the gray area between good and bad, and between lucky and unlucky. It's a bit reminiscent of James M. Cain, to a degree, as well as Donald Westlake's Parker novels--though not as relentlessly grim as the first or as nihilistic as the second. There are, perhaps more obviously, shades of Leonard and a hint of Chandler, though more in the effect than in style. Suffice to say, it's good. Very good.

Composite Math

Under the Bright Lights: 7/10. (Solid but unspectacular.)
Muscle on the Wing: 9/10. (Truly great noir.)
The Ones You Do: 8/10. (Wobbles a bit but ends perfectly.)

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.