Although his novel Ride with the Devil was adapted by Ang Lee, the Ozark-based Daniel Woodrell was relatively unknown in the UK before Winter's Bone was made into an award-winning film. His first collection of short stories is set in the harsh wilds he favours. The protagonists are disturbed renegades, shaped by their environment and life's blows.
Woodrell writes in an almost biblical idiom, which makes the brutality of his stories shocking. The opening story, "The Echo of Neighbouring Bones", starts starkly: "Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn't seem to quit killing him." The reason for the murder is typically Faulknerian: the victim accused the protagonist's dog of eating his guinea fowl.
Revenge is a powerful reason for violence. Sometimes the motivation is petty – a son sets fire to a house so that its collapse reveals a river view to his dying father. At others, the spur is prolonged abuse. More disturbingly, a girl colludes with her mother's murderer in other crimes.
Woodrell has said that many youngsters in the Ozarks enlist to escape, as he did. Two stories feature men scarred by war. In "Black Step", the protagonist is so jumpy from service in the Gulf that when his cancer-ridden mother surprises him as he is painting a dead cow, he tries to fire rounds from his paintbrush. In "Night Stand", Pelham awakes to find a naked stranger growling over his marital bed. Terrified, he stabs the intruder repeatedly, driven to frenzied attack by his experiences in Vietnam, only to find out that the unarmed stranger had served in Iraq. "Woe to Live On" is a story about an American of Dutch origin who killed fellow American Dutch in the Civil War, leading to the revenge killing of his father. The story is visceral: dead soldiers litter a battleground as "their sourdough bodies began to rise with the sun".
These are timeless tales of humans capable of compassion but also monumental violence. Often, an element of mystery is left. Under glowering skies and amid tough terrain, these damaged humans creating mayhem – gratuitous killing, vengeful wars – look a lot less civilised than other animals.
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