BLACK HOLE

STATS: BOOK (GRAPHIC) / CHARLES BURNS / 368pp. / Begun in 1995, published as a collection in 2005.

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If you’re in the market for a book that nails the combination of the almost impossibly banal and the overwhelmingly surreal that comes to characterize the high school experience of a certain kind of smart, drug-inclined, socially isolated American teenager … and why wouldn’t you be?

 

I don’t know of anything else that quite gets it. I love High School as a genre, from the total broism of American Pie and Blink-182 to the slightly stranger, quirkier Buffy and The O.C., through the hip noir of Brick, to the earnest, wounded types who lurk around in John Hughes — all fantasy versions of high school, for me, lives I never got to or quite wanted to lead — but nothing I’ve come across touches on the cerebral and celestial dimensions of my high school experience in the way of BLACK HOLE, nor grounds them in as convincingly actual a place and time.

 

The nascent romance, the flickering excitement and fear associated with segueing from pot into acid, the all-importance of music (it’s Bowie for Burns’ 70’s Seattleites; it was Radiohead and Wilco for me in 2001-05), the lostness even among peers and supposed friends, and the interaction of town and country — the separate, often conflicting appeals and dangers posed by streets and houses as opposed to woods, lakes, beaches, and the night sky, which probably gets looked at and thought seriously about more during those years than at any other time (for me, in moments like that, it was Counting Crows’ August & Everything After).

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It’s all there in Burn’s massive and lavishly illustrated B&W book, drawn in a style that combines the clean, efficient lines of classic comics with the exaggerated starkness of German Expressionism and early 20th century American woodcut master Lynd Ward, all dosed with some heavy mutation.

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Loosely organized around a disfiguring (to varying degrees) plague that infects a group of high schoolers as they enter into sexual and other sorts of congress with one another, the whole project seems to me to really be about tracing the interactions — both intermixings and diametric clashes — of boredom and isolation with terror and revelation in the lives of American 17- and 18-year-olds.

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The first time I tripped, at 16, things blew open in a way that hasn’t yet closed — though, even as a much younger child, devouring fairy tales and Narnia and all the standard fare, I had no doubt that the interaction of the mind and the body, and the mind-body and the larger world, was no simple business … it just took until high school, and the advent of drugs and the allure of sex, to make it clear that the body itself could be both catalyst and subject for the realms of the bizarre and nightmarish that, until then, had dwelt solely in my mind, in my little childhood bed, insulated by walls of books, behind a sort of translucent barrier sold to me, then, as “make believe.”

 

The main feeling I got from reading this over the past month, digesting one of its short-story or TV-episode length sections every few days, is that of the simultaneity of too-muchness and too-littleness, the sense that the world (or, better put in this case, the universe) is both incredibly boring and overwhelmingly interesting, somehow at once full of too little to be worthwhile and too much to be even remotely graspable.

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You’re on the world, spinning through space, and you feel both the immense importance and the diminishing nothingness of that fact … and also, a lot of the time, you completely forget or just can’t stand to think about it at all, and do whatever you’re doing despite its still being true.

 

Another way I sometimes put this to myself, in thinking about my own art and writing, is the union of STRANGENESS & SADNESS — I don’t ever want to have one without the other. Life is both: there’s the Cronenbergian body horror that infects every day, the gnarled mess of desire and revulsion, the fear of / attraction to aliens and monsters and cults and maniacs et al … coupled, always, with dreariness, loneliness, money, getting gas or a burger, seeing the same old people in the same old places, the end of another day in the same place when you haven’t gotten much done except roam endlessly around your mind and pick things up in town.

 

All of this became clear to me in high school, when my faculties of perception were seemingly at their sharpest but my faculties of expression were pretty much non-existent … so my mind was constantly exploding while devouring an infinite buffet of otherworlds and innerworlds and non-worlds, etc etc …  talking about it nonstop with the one or two friends I was lucky enough to have who got it … all of us biting off way, way more than we could chew … and then coming back to bite off more.

 

The feeling of having all the gates of time and space blown open, all of language and art and symbology burned to shards, laying bare the jagged and vulnerable mythic structures beneath, like some weird power plant on the bottom of the ocean, while tripping in the woods somewhere, and then returning to town, at sunset, coming off it, saying hi to your parents’ friends when you run into them while debating amongst yourselves whether to get pizza or burritos or maybe splurge on Indian …

 

There’s comfort, even joy, mixed into all of this — the feeling that this is my life and I wouldn’t trade it. A kind of cherishing of all that you have that you don’t know what (else) to do with. Call it the TENACITY OF THE NORMAL, both a curse and a blessing: however far you go, you always — in middle class American life, anyway — get to and have to come back, unless you go truly insane or die, which does happen but probably not too too often in the scheme of things.

 

*****

The thing about a graphic novel, obviously, is that it has to be graphic: Burns has to find a way to render this idea or feeling about the universe visual, and spatial. And he does: he arranges his frames so as to represent both the inert, frustrating outer reality and the elating, terrifying inner one at the same time, or at least on the same page.

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This comes across in an alternation of very clear, sparse frames, the comics equivalent of photorealism, and very dense, jumbled ones, like tapestries, illuminated religious manuscripts, or sinister, slightly insane Where’s Waldo frames.

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And he builds his Seattle this way as well: his scenes lapse from a bunch of dudes toking up on the couch and watching TV, upstairs, to a sexual wonderland and nightmare-realm in the basement, or between convenience stores and bologna sandwiches to crucified fetish dolls and Young Goodman Brown style Witches’ Sabbaths in the woods.

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He plies the edges of control, contorting his frames and bodies as far and much as possible before they completely break down into chaos. Then they snap back into the mundane, just as the morning has to come after the night has gotten as extreme as a night can get.

 

That’s the visual version of the real-life thing about the tenacity of the normal.

 

A filmmaker I hugely respect once told me something: if you’re doing body-horror or grotesque metamorphosis in film, you have to strive toward the point of doing as much to the body as you possibly can, without crossing the line and just doing things to the image: if you lose the physicality, the sense of pleasure, pain, and meaningful, costly distortion, you enter a gratuitous, drama-free realm of just playing around on your computer, which doesn’t do much good for anyone.

 

Burns is clearly cognizant (at least intuitively) of what and where this line is, and he respects it. Everything that happens to people in BLACK HOLE, no matter how out-there, still happens to people, not to lines on paper.

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The same is true of his bodies and their associated horror — the way that feet, necks, and backs peel open into vaginas and mouths, faces bubble and warp, people turn into freaks while still maintaining their bonds to one another — the snarl of inner life etches itself undeniably across the body’s canvas covering, forcing people to be what they actually are as they go through the world, without obviating the basically soap operatic challenge of being friends and lovers to the people who happen to live near you.

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There were rumors for a long time that David Fincher was planning a film adaptation. They’ve been pretty well put to rest by now, but if it’d happened and wasn’t a disaster, it would’ve been great.

Charles Burns

” … Only I knew I wouldn’t be hiking back to my warm, safe home in the morning.”

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TAMPA

STATS: BOOK / ALISSA NUTTING / 272pp. / 2013

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Celeste Price is a gorgeous 26-year-old 14-year-old-craving middle school teacher who starts her first full-time gig after much masturbatory anticipation, viewing her class as a male meat market, gritting her teeth through inane group discussions of Romeo + Juliet, until she finds a suitable boy, after which …

 

… a book about selfishness in all of its guises, dimensions, joys, and destructions ensues. You could read it on a sociopolitical level, in terms of examining how women, especially young and beautiful women, who happen to be sexual predators can operate and expect to be treated in 2013 America, as opposed to old, ugly men (how even the notion of a young, beautiful female sexual predator, rather than prey, is almost oxymoronic and thus darkly powerful) … but I tend not to read things on this level.

 

Instead, TAMPA gripped me on the level of a psychological dispatch from the interior of a very smart, very capable person motivated by an urge so extreme it can tolerate no alternative or moderation. Nutting never trivializes her subject into something explicable, but she does allow Celeste the time and eloquence to express the seriousness and the complexity of her desire — building nuances and stages and shadings, and painstakingly orchestrating it against the tide of social reality, without reducing it to reasons or suggesting that it’s possibly curable.

 

Celeste’s is a mix of physical and psychological turn-ons: her boys’ cusp-pubescent bodies are a big part of it, the way in which their forms are erotically expressed as male but not yet manly … but there’s something else too: their innate, almost unwitting 14-year-old-ness … the perspective on sex and the female body that they can’t help but have, the full-to-bursting cache of never-acted-upon fantasies — the mixture of primate-lewdness and untempered awe with which they see her, and with which she, or part of her, wants, vicariously, to see herself:

 

“I’d be the sexual yardstick for his whole life: Jack would spend the rest of his days trying but failing to relive the experience of being given everything at a time when he knew nothing.”

 

AND

 

“We get to have the very best part of a relationship be our whole relationship. With us it’s dessert for every meal.”

 

 

That the boys are 14-year-olds is a particular dramatic crux: if they were 8-year-olds, the wrongness of her predation would be obvious and irrefutable (not to mention the particular sex acts would have to be more creative), whereas if they were 17-year-olds, it’d be more or less cool save for the legal technicality. But 14 is a fraught middle zone, where they’re old enough to have reached physical sexual maturity, and certainly old enough to enjoy the coming-true of an almost impossible-to-not-have adolescent fantasy … and yet … what?

 

I don’t quite know, but it’s something emotional: I think it’s that they can’t quite understand how they’re being used, can’t, indeed, understand that anyone could use another person in the way she’s using them. Their ability to have sex far outstrips their ability to process it, which, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, makes I suppose plenty of sense.

 

So things like LOVE flood their nascent systems. When her first and main boy starts proclaiming it, hurt, for him, and disgust, for her, cannot be far off: “Jack had already adopted the illusion that we’d date through his entire high school career and beyond … In truth, our relationship’s shelf life was closer to that of an elderly Labrador.”

 

*****

I’ve seen Celeste called, in some quarters, “the female American Psycho,” but, while Nutting has surely read and given serious thought to Ellis’ masterpiece, and has indeed created a character that is likewise young, beautiful, and charming enough to indulge in egregiously taboo acts in plain sight … and although she develops a similar pattern of trapping the reader fully inside the repetitive, almost mantra-like thought patterns of a predator, to the exclusion of all other narration, such that the entire world is filtered through an antisocial and devious lens …

 

… her book nevertheless gets into the darkness of an acted-upon inner life in a different way: for Patrick Bateman, violence is casual and meaningless, a petty distraction on the level of Armani suits, exclusive restaurants, bathroom-snorted cocaine, videocassette rentals, and Whitney Houston. The point is that no number of murders and executions can sate or even soothe true boredom and vapidity … so being a violent psychopath isn’t especially fulfilling or even important, it’s just one more thing you can do to try to hide from the fact that you hate yourself if you have enough money.

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For Celeste, the desire to seduce and serially fuck 14-year-old boys is genuine and actually fulfilling: she’s truly motivated by it, she knows it’ll make her happy, and it does. The question of why it makes her happy, and whether the fact that it does is a good or a bad thing, is another matter, but there’s no doubt that it’s something speaking from her core … a body part that Patrick Bateman doesn’t even have, let alone listen to.

 

Celeste, like Bateman, is bored and surrounded by idiots and pedants, but she cuts through this morass toward something else, trying to extract and cherish one worthwhile thing, whereas Bateman, in his porny sadistic way, ends up basically just stirring it.

 

*****

As I’ve been trying to say, TAMPA is a rare book that gives selfishness its due. I’m not saying it condones pedophilia, manipulation, and the disregard of how one’s actions affect the outside world, but it allows a woman who wants something, and is willing to subjugate others to get it, to speak, convincingly, for herself.

 

Putting its money where its mouth is, the book is unafraid to be genuinely sexy — Nutting doesn’t need to turn you against Celeste by casting her acts as, in and of themselves, repellant. The sex scenes are sincere and moving, and undeniably arousing — not parodic and dismissive in the manner that Ellis has perfected (much as I love what he does for what it is).

 

Instead, Nutting puts you (or me, anyway) half in the minds and bodies of her 14-year-olds, and half in Celeste’s.

 

TAMPA is, of all the books I’ve ever read, the one that’s brought me the closest to believing I can imagine (at least some of) the physical and emotional sensations of having a female body and a female’s heterosexuality. It’s impossible to know whether this is objectively true, but this was certainly my experience while reading, for which I’m grateful — I feel as though I grew as a person because of it. My sense of the fullness of human experience, even if it’s only an internal sense, expanded.

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“The numbers could never be as favorable as they were right now, when his naïveté would be subtracted from my expertise to produce the largest sum of astonishment possible.”

I SAW THE DEVIL

STATS: MOVIE / SOUTH KOREA / DIR: KIM JI-WOON / 144 min. / 2010

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If Oldboy is Blade Runner meets Sophocles, I Saw The Devil — generally considered South Korea’s so-far second greatest revenge film — is Fargo meets Edward Albee. Less colorful and stylized, colder, heavier, in many ways nastier, it meditates harder on the question of what revenge actually is, and what purpose it actually serves, given that it obviously doesn’t serve the purpose of righting any wrong (the lie that has to be told).

 

I don’t think revenge — as a human story, not just a Korean Movie story — has anything to do with getting even, or fairness, or the memory of the deceased. It’s not like the initial act is -1, the revenge is +1, and the place you’re trying to get to is 0.

 

I think revenge is about mimicry — someone does something so extreme (so impressive) to you that you’re compelled, in an irresistible, reflexive way, to do it back to them. In a sense, you owe them that; they deserve (and want) to suffer back from the world the pain they put out into it, in both the positive and negative senses of the word deserve.

 

In this way, revenge is a form of tribute. And, perhaps, the initial act of violence is an act of summoning revenge onto yourself, saying, Let’s get this process started.

 

The story is barebones: this older guy (serial killer, pervert, dead to the world, etc … ):

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Kills the girlfriend of this younger guy (special forces police dude, doesn’t listen to authority, etc … ):

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And this younger guy goes off the rails.

 

His vengeance quest turns into him punishing the older guy again and again, nearly killing him each time, only to nurse him back to health and play another round … until the older guy catches onto the structure of things and inputs an idea or two of his own.

 

An initial, out-of-the-blue violent act — predicated on a kind of ground-level insanity that can only come from the core of an individual — tears a hole in something (civility? restraint? denial?), through which a whole lot more violence can freely stream (IE, you can’t make the first move without admitting you’re insane, but you can react in the name of justice or doing the right thing or some such). The older guy is kind enough to give the younger guy this opening, and all too happy to suffer the consequences.

 
So the initial murder is the act of stomping an anthill, and the rest of the film is just ants seething and pouring out … until it’s finally empty and, for the time being, violence must be put to rest.

 

The AV Club has a point when it says that I Saw The Devil is about “the immutability of evil, which can’t be transformed or obliterated, but simply exists, cold and black, as a force of absolute destruction.” The seeming-immortality of both men, as they routinely survive death-level degrees of abuse, only reinforces this notion, as though evil has made them superhuman (at least as long as they remain driven by and vessels for it).

 

It’s incredible how many outside people get maimed and killed amidst all of this — like a war is being waged. But I admire the degree to which the movie holds off on being a morality tale. It’s not interested in saying, “If you chase the devil, you become the devil.” It’s smart and honest enough to assume this as a starting point, and try to show what happens once you’ve accepted it and decided to move forward anyway: when you get your chance to jump in and take it.

 

I do believe there’s a place and a purpose for morality in art, but it can’t be direct — for me, a work has to agitate or strain or titillate some moral nerve, presenting a tension-rich and irresolvable moral problem or morally problematic environment to stew and wade around in. It can’t make any moral pronouncement of any kind and not lose me.

 

What I Saw The Devil does instead is make the case that violence is sex that breeds more violence:

 

Through mutual engagement in violence, one man becomes the father of the other — or reincarnates himself in the form of the other, so that he can die at the end and go on living at the same time. The younger guy’s girlfriend said she was pregnant just before the older guy killed her — at the end, her spirit gives birth to a re-formed version of the younger guy, 100% on the path toward becoming the older guy and doing all of this all over again.

 

The relationship that develops between the younger and the older man is nothing if not that of a student and a mentor, coupled with a kind of superfertile but doomed romance. It’s not that it takes one to know one … rather, it takes one to become one.

 

Each man sees the devil in himself and in the other man, and the viewer sees it everywhere. It’s a condition of reality that can be sent into the shadows but never uprooted. The older man understood this all along, and is thus the only character at peace with himself. The younger man learns it along the way, until, like a spirit-guide whose work in this world is finally done, the older man allows himself to be killed.

 

Some consummation takes place. The foreplay goes somewhere.

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More than any of the myriad scenes of torture, dismemberment, cannibalism, et al, the image that’ll stick with me is the younger man walking along wearing earbud headphones that transmit the feed of the tracking device that he’s forced down the older man’s throat — essentially listening to the older man’s thoughts in his own head. When he finally takes them off, after listening to the older man die, it’s surely not because he’s finished with that voice … it’s because he can now hear it in his head without any help.

ON COUNTRY NOIR

STATS: SEVERAL BOOKS / WOODRELL ET AL / 1996–PRESENT

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In the fall of 2011, Ozarks-based author Daniel Woodrell followed his breakout hit Winter’s Bone (2006) with The Outlaw Album, his first collection of short stories. It successfully showcases the full spectrum of themes, scenarios, and styles that constitute “country noir,” a term he coined with his 1996 novel Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir.

 

 

Because noir is a pervasive atmosphere and feeling about the world, not a set of  specific ideas or plot devices, it has always welcomed fringe developments. Country noir started as just one more of these, but in recent years the growing ranks of its practitioners and the increasing quality of their output have etched it vividly onto the literary map.

 

 

To wit:

 

 

The novels of The Bayou Trilogy, Woodrell’s first project, dating back to 1986, were out of print until an omnibus edition came out in April 2011. This edition, along with Winter’s Bone and The Outlaw Album, were his only books in print until, all at once, his novels Tomato Red, Woe to Live On, Give us a Kiss, and The Death of Sweet Mister returned to shelves in handsome reprints in the spring of 2012. With this windfall, Woodrell has emerged from the obscurity of the first two decades of his career to the point where we must now go beyond likening him to Faulkner and McCarthy and begin discussing his work in its own right, using his own term for it.

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After the commercial disappointment of the Louisiana-set Bayou Trilogy, he returned to his native Missouri Ozarks, both in person and in print. Here, he found the voice and the gravity that would become the foundations of country noir’s new brand of serious crime fiction. This was a move deeper into his own heritage – he’s had family in southern Missouri since before the Civil War – but country noir is bigger than one man’s hometown mythology. In 2011, Donald Ray Pollock, author of 2009’s excellent story collection, Knockemstiff, set in the real town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, published his first novel, The Devil All The Time, while Frank Bill published his debut story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana (his debut novel, Donnybrook, came out this spring), to much acclaim.

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Both of these authors have taken Woodrell’s brand of Midwestern menace and amped it up into a new zone of meth-driven anguish that’s as relentlessly brutal as anything recently published by a major house (in this case, Doubleday and FSG). They go a fair piece beyond Woodrell into new circles of the American Inferno, but his fingerprints are unmistakable on their style and attitude, to say nothing of their current success.

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Across the Atlantic, British crime writer David Peace completed his Red Riding novels in 2002. Based on true stories of semi-supernatural murders on the desolate Yorkshire moors in the 1970s and 80s (the Smiths song “Suffer Little Children” is based on them), these novels mark country noir’s freakiest and most ambitious achievement to date, and the three Red Riding films, released in 2009 and 2010, have been widely hailed as modern masterpieces (and they are).

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The smash success of the multi-Oscar nominated and Sundance-winning film version of Winter’s Bone in 2010, combined with 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman trying to parse what happened to her when she lived with a cult deep in the Catskills, and the disturbingly moving 2011 Australian indie The Snowtown Murders, relating the true story of a charismatic small-town serial killer in South Australia, cement country noir’s position in a broad pop-cultural landscape.

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These films have branded the genre with a set of actual locations, soundtracks, and actors (John Hawkes lends his emaciated and scraggly-bearded face more than once), proving, in the way that only mainstream cinema can, that the genre is now recognizable as such, newly imbued with mass entertainment value (to say nothing at all of Breaking Bad’s incredibly exciting if morally questionable aestheticization of the meth trade). The age of country noir as an out of print fringe genre, buried in an unreachable rural dead zone, is over.

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Woodrell didn’t conjure country noir out of the Ozarks alone. He took Faulkner’s obsession with heredity and degenerating family lines, fused it with the biblically fraught sagas of gun-wielding madmen haunting the hill country of Cormac McCarthy’s early East Tennessee novels (The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, and Child of God), and boiled it all down with Raymond Chandler’s terseness and grim humor, James Ellroy’s rapid-fire late-nite rants, and the schizophrenically mounting suspense of 50s small-town noir master Jim Thompson, best known for The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, and Pop. 1280.

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Since the Midwest never enjoyed the genteel plantation life, Faulkner’s tragic air of great houses rotting away is absent in Woodrell: his Ozarks are far colder and drier than Faulkner’s rank, gothic Mississippi. The edges are sharper, the sentences shorter. His poor people have always been poor, so their only legacy is one of lowdown survival:

 

 

A house in Winter’s Bone was “built small but extra bedrooms and box windows and other ideas had been added on by different residents who’d had hammers and leftover wood. There always seemed to be walls covered by black tarpaper … waiting for more walls  and a roof …” Steinbeck wrote about this kind of white lower-class squalor, but in a more sentimental mode, searching for its inner poetry through a logic of opposites – the more degraded the reality, the more exalted the description. Woodrell turns sharply away from this, letting his characters speak in their own broken diction, rising and falling with the cadences of their “old blood … set firm long before hotshot baby Jesus ever even burped milk’n shit yellow.” So country noir is defiantly lowbrow – even the term “country noir,” rather than, say, “rural noir,” has a lowbrow ring to it. It’s literature to be taken seriously, but never soberly.

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Both in tone and content, Woodrell draws as much from campfire stories, murder ballads, and the swaggering story-songs of southern rock bands like the Drive-by Truckers (whom he cites as an influence), as from his literary forebears. His narrators speak in conspiratorial whispers, like they’ve taken you aside and chosen to make you the keeper of a dangerous secret in a place where secrets are always dangerous.

 

 

In Winter’s Bone, a man is dead because “either he stole or he told. Those are the things they kill you for.” Woodrell describes the inhabitants of his Ozarks as people who have been “groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law.” He takes you into this profoundly private society, entrenched in the dead center of the map, and makes you feel the weight of a lifetime lived there.

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If urban noir is about what happens when so many people crowd into one place that the forces passing among them ignite into sudden violence, country noir is about what happens when there are too few people to fill a place, and the forces binding them together become unbearably intense. In urban noir, people disappear into a mystery at the heart of civilization. In country noir they disappear into a mystery beyond its outer edges.

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Before returning to the Ozarks, Woodrell paid tribute to classic urban noir in The Bayou Trilogy. The trilogy follows prizefighter-turned policeman Rene Shade through mazes of corruption in the fictional Louisiana town of St. Bruno. A kid from the wrong  side of the tracks, most of the criminals he hunts down were at one point his friends. The way in which warring factions share the same roots reaches all the way through  Woodrell’s oeuvre. St. Bruno is big enough to incorporate the tropes of urban noir, but it’s also small enough to ensure that no one involved is a stranger. Ree Dolly, the teenaged heroine of Winter’s Bone, “decided to name all the Miltons: Thump, Blond, Catfish, Spider, Whoop, Rooster, Scrap … Lefty, Dog, Punch, Pinkeye, Momsy … Cotton, Hog-jaw, Ten Penny … at least two dozen Miltons moved about in Ree’s world.”

 

 

Already in The Bayou Trilogy, Woodrell is beginning to shy away from the anonymous dealings of the big city and toward country noir’s extreme intimacy. Stylistically, however, these novels are busy riffing on urban noir: “The archaic angle of his sideburns and the dead-end-kid swoop of his long brown hair raised some upfront doubts about his good citizenship that his face did nothing to allay;” “He tended  to scowl by reflex and grunt in response. His neck was a holdover from normal-necked person’s nightmare, and when he crossed his arms it looked like two large snakes procreating a third.”

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Sentences like these are nowhere to be found in Woodrell’s later work. At the very end of The Outlaw Album, two brothers sit “studying the woods, looking for paths” while the police approach to take one of them away. As they study these paths, they realize that they “remembered them all from before [they] were born.” From 1996 on, Woodrell has been going down these paths, steadily dredging up pre-birth memories. In The Bayou Trilogy, a traveling killer thinks about the ghosts of “ … bottom-born, forceful types … Their criminal actions, and the still remembered drama of their bloody lives, spooked feelings awake and made them flit about in [his] deeper parts.”

 

 

This could well serve as an epigraph for The Outlaw Album. The twelve stories in this collection really do function as an album, melding the general aura of the American outlaw with detailed accounts of shootings, stabbings, rape, and arson in the southern Missouri of today. Like Faulkner’s vision of the Old Testament’s begats stretching unbroken into the present, Woodrell’s stories espouse a belief that, for better or worse, the legacy of the American Outlaw is not over. Even though only one story – “Woe to Live On,” about marauders during the Civil War – is set in the distant past, all convey the feeling that life is predetermined by felt but unseen myths. The facts of history may be unknown, or untrue, but history itself issues palpably from the earth.

 

 

In “Twin Forks,” a man works at a store where “the locals who came in were often people of a kind he hadn’t truly believed still existed … pioneer-lean old men who poached deer whenever hungry and wouldn’t pay taxes … with the beards of prophets who read the Bible at a certain slant … living hidden in the hills.” People like this are distributed throughout Woodrell’s writing, and the land and its outlaw heritage speaks  through them.

 

 

When it comes to the violence from which country noir derives its life energy, Woodrell has found a voice that makes it real and irrevocable, departing significantly from the crackerjack splatter of The Bayou Trilogy (and of urban noir in general). In “Night Stand,” a man finds a disturbed younger man standing over his bed in the middle of the night, and instinctively stabs him: “A popping sound came from inside the man’s ribs … 4 that plonk sound of striking a knothole hammering a nail … hot flung blood in the eyes blinded [him] … [his] bare feet were slapping the wood floor, slapping down hard like he was clambering to the crest of a hill that wasn’t there …”

 

 

The glamour of violence isn’t forgotten, but it doesn’t come as cheap as it used to, and all of Woodrell’s outlaws know its price. The conviction that life and death are real, and that the progression from one into the other cannot be reversed, is unmistakable in these stories.

 

 

Most evocative of the claustrophobic communities in which these brutal acts occur is “Florianne,” where a father whose daughter has disappeared realizes that, if they ever find who took her, “I’ll probably know him. Maybe I’ve known him all my life … I might  have given him credit at the store, let his tab ride till next Friday.” There are so few people that everyone has to play both friend and foe to everyone else. As Winter’s Bone’s Ree Dolly walks through her family’s cemetery plot, she looks at “the headstones … gray-green with time … the name Dolly was in big letters on so many that Ree’s skin spooked.”

 

 

In that novel, as in The Outlaw Album, there is zero breathing room among those who live together. This tightness lends real weight to the violence that occurs, because its shock waves cannot escape, as they can in the city. In the country,  there aren’t enough minds around to absorb them, so they compound over time, seeping into the ground, and then seeping back out into the people who tread upon it.

 

 

These stories exist in a middle place between the real and the imaginary, where Iraq vets and meth chefs meld into the Americana of Paul Bunyan and Davy Crocket. You have to believe that you could turn off of any highway in Middle America and find this place, and yet you remain forever on the cusp, unsure whether or not such a place is really on the map.

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The classic urban noir of the 20s-50s belonged to LA. It saw in California the place where the dream of riding off into the sunset ends, and the reality of stagnation and decay begins. What is California, after all, if not hard proof that the West does not go on  forever? If you want the ride to keep going, you have to plunge into cinema or turn back into the heartland. For the first time since the advent of the Western, a literary and  cinematic genre is doing just this. Country noir has reopened the closed frontier, where outlaws operate unencumbered, and dragged it into the present era.

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Unlike the tabloid-noir of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, country noir does not feed on a glut of sensationalized information. Rather, this is a world where people die for letting a single word slip, and others pay dearly to find out a fragment of the truth. So country noir teases out a fundamental mystery about people, one whose power grows when there’s nothing around to hem it in.

 

 

In his story “Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell,” Frank Bill writes, “They’s evils in people that make little if any sense, and trying to figure them out does a person little to no good.” Every one of Woodrell’s stories attests to the truth of this.

 

 

Woodrell, Pollock, Frank Bill, and David Peace all succeed at conjuring this mystery out of their stretches of countryside and those few people who inhabit them. Their characters are as close to one another and to the land as it is possible to get. Right up against the mystery, they’re forced to stare straight into it. They know the places where they live down to every last shack, shed, and rotting vehicle, and yet there is so little to  know compared to the vastness of the unknown that their knowledge flirts with nothingness, like a campfire in a clearing at night, with the woods spreading out infinitely into the dark.

 

 
This paradox breeds constant violence, as if there were no other way to keep that campfire flickering. Violence rears up from the dark reaches of time and space, and then recedes back where it came from, to be preserved forever as a story to tell or a secret to keep (and an ever-fertile source of more of itself). It melds the real and the magical, the brute and the ethereal, the past and the present, gluing these opposites together and  letting them vibrate with ferocious intensity. David Peace’s Yorkshire Ripper chops the wings off of swans and sews them onto the backs of murdered girls, to make them into angels: herein lies violence’s ability to force the imaginary into contact with cold spilled  blood.

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Blood, going back to Faulkner’s obsession with the intermixing of white and black blood, is the vessel of country noir’s mystery. It’s the substance of both life and death, depending only on if it’s inside or outside of the body. Spilling it is the only way to find the truth about a person’s inner nature, but, as soon as it’s been spilled, it returns into abstraction, ceasing to tell any truth at all as soon as the person whose secret it kept is dead.

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As Ree Dolly searches for her father’s corpse, blood is the only tool she has: asking for an  audience with the one man who may know what happened, she insists to his wife that “some of the same blood runs through us … that’s gotta mean something, don’t it?” In the way that it hinges on something violent and unknown that happened in the countryside, Winter’s Bone is the prototypical country noir story. As Ree Dolly tries to find proof that her father really is dead, she departs the human realm and presses nearer to the heart of the mystery. This human realm – the town, the trailer, the house – is the point of departure, and also the place for thinking about and remembering what happened, like waking up in bed and trying to recall a dream. The stories start and end in this human realm, but their climaxes happen much farther out.

 

 

Out there, the unknowability of what happened is inseparable from the unknowability of where it happened: in the woods, in a cornfield, in a body of water. From Ree Dolly’s hunt for her missing father to the lapses in the title character’s memory about her time with the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, the countryside becomes a deadly and irresistibly attractive void. It’s a point of transition between the community and its trove of stories, on the one hand, and the silent unknown of the Great Beyond, on the other. At its best, country noir evokes some of “that pious shade and silence pines create … low limbs spread over fresh snow … a stronger vault for the spirit than pews and pulpits …”

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After driving her out to the lake where her father’s body resides, one of the women from a rival clan takes a sack off Ree Dolly’s head and tells her, “Don’t try’n guess where this is, or ever come back here.” When she finds the corpse on the bottom, she saws off its  hands to bring back to town: “Flecks of meat and wet bone hit Ree in the face and she closed her eyes and felt patters on her eyelids. When the blade cut through, Dad’s body sank away from her grasp.” This is all the closure Woodrell gives her. The rest of her father, and the real facts of his death, will stay forever on the bottom of the lake, embedded in nature and in a story never to be told, or written.

 

 

Down on this bottom, far from the reach of time, mystery breaks down into myth. It’s the myth of some presence out there in the dark, not a beast with a body, but something that preys on people, and makes people prey on one another. It’s something that cannot  be known, but neither can it be ignored. You can feel it stirring in the best moments of a  really good country noir story.

 

 

In this light, Woodrell’s distance from the literary mainstream starts to look deliberate, an extension of his choice to live in the same remoteness he writes about. His writing  derives its ring of truth by issuing straight out of the unknown, and pulling the reader in, offering a particular feeling about the dark without any illumination of it.

 

 

From a reader’s perspective, country noir began as a form of outsider art, coined by an unknown author writing about unknown places. But the characters in these places view themselves as insiders and all others as outsiders. They live according to fiercely guarded inner ways, resentful of observation. Now that mainstream America is prying ever more intently into these inner ways, some shock to the genre’s fundamental mystery  and integrity is inevitable. It may not be a betrayal on the authors’ parts to tell the stories of places and people that do not want their stories told, but you can feel the tension mounting as they tell it to an audience that keeps getting bigger.

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It’s hard to predict how the renegade myth of white trash violence in the Midwest will fare if it becomes a stock myth in our culture, like that of the alcoholic LA detective or the Man With No Name, riding across the desert. From the vantage point of right now, all you can see is the genre’s star rising. Even as the stories grow increasingly bleak and misanthropic, more and more people are lining up to hear them.

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Now that Woodrell has encapsulated his career with The Outlaw Album, perhaps he’ll turn in a new direction. But I doubt it. I think he’ll keep going farther down the same paths, deeper into the land’s memories of former lives and deaths. As he does, I wonder what will happen to the actual tenuous reality of the places he goes to. Their mythic element will either fade entirely or increase to the point where it dwarfs the fact that they actually exist.

 

 

On the literary map, there’s no question that country noir has found its place. But on the map of America, the mystery reasserts itself: do these places still exist, or don’t they? Is something really out there, or isn’t it?