You may not be familiar with Daniel Woodrell. His literary output simultaneously invites and defies easy categorization, whether one attempts to do so by style or by genre. Stylistically, one is reminded of Faulkner, McCarthy or Burke, yet the characters and situations that pepper his stories and novels carry a nobility touched with absurdity that is all Woodrell's own. And genre? Woodrell calls his work "country noir," and that it is, in a sense, though not entirely. One is reminded of the similarities and differences of the territory mined in the novels of Nelson Algren and Erskine Caldwell, as Woodrell's narrative slides easily back and forth through love and hate, greed and generosity, bravery and cowardice. It's difficult to read even a chapter of one of his books without being affected in some strange or dark or, yes, uplifting way.
The newly published volume, THE BAYOU TRILOGY, serves as an excellent introduction to Woodrell's work, collecting three of his previously published short novels --- UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS, MUSCLE FOR THE WING and THE ONES YOU DO --- dealing with the fictional city of St. Bruno, which is either in Louisiana or within spitting distance of its border. St. Bruno is a city of neighborhoods, defined by nationality or economic status, of which the primary locations are Frogtown (populated by descendants of French settlers), Pan Fry (the instantly recognizable black neighborhood) and Hawthorne Hills (the residing place of the well-heeled). As one might expect, it is Frogtown and Pan Fry that Woodrell primarily explores in the course of his literary travels through THE BAYOU TRILOGY. St. Bruno is created out of whole cloth, yet the power of Woodrell's prose is such that one becomes almost instantly familiar with the city and its inhabitants after reading but a few chapters of UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS, which introduces not only St. Bruno but also the Shade brothers.
The primary focus of the three novels is Rene Shade, first among equals as the middle brother. Rene is an ex-boxer who bears the scars to prove it and has turned to a career in law enforcement, which he practices with a rough though effective edge. Rene's older brother, Tip, runs a rough Frogtown bar that caters to a lawless element and greets Rene's occasional patronage with an uneasy hospitality. Francois, the youngest of the three brothers, is an unlikely success, heading up the St. Bruno's District Attorney's office and living the appropriately wealthy life with his wife in Hawthorne Hills. All of the Shade boys, to varying degrees, bear the heritage and marks of being the sons of John X. Shade, a legendary St. Bruno gambler and womanizer who up and left the family decades before with little more than a smile and a wave goodbye.
Rene often finds himself at odds with the St. Bruno police chief, who is more beholden to the mayor and the unseen powers-that-be than to law enforcement. Rene, though vested with the authority of a sworn peace officer, has issues with authority figures, so that to call him conflicted would not be inaccurate. It is this conflict that forms part of the moving force of UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS. When a leader of the Pan Fry business community is shot dead in his home during an apparent burglary, Rene is given subtle encouragement to treat it that way, rather than as the act of deliberate assassination that, after even cursory examination, it appears to be. When the shooter, a local pimp, is himself killed in a haphazard, comic opera plan that goes wrong in several different ways before it goes right, the hireling finds himself running not only from Rene, but also from the folks who hired him, who themselves are tied to a local criminal kingpin. The motivating force, of course, is land and money, which circles back around Rene and his squad partner, How Blanchette, a stereotypical southern cop who is both Rene's confidante and foil.
The second book, MUSCLE FOR THE WING, opens with the robbery of a poker game that goes horribly wrong when the St. Bruno police officer hired as security is shot and killed. The fact that the game is attended by the town's hoi polloi --- including the St. Bruno mayor --- attaches even greater significance to the event. Rene and How are split up, with Rene given specific instructions about how to deal with the killer once he has been apprehended --- instructions that, if carried out, will make a trial superfluous. Rene, of course, develops other ideas, which carry over into THE ONES YOU DO.
The focus of this final story, however, shifts just a bit to the long-missing John X. Shade, who is on the run from a very dangerous adversary for a theft of which, ironically enough, he is (almost) entirely innocent. John X., having run out of road and friends, lams out to St. Bruno with his 10-year-old daughter in tow, re-establishing an uneasy contact with his sons (two-thirds of them, anyway), even as he feels the prickly certainty of violent and unpleasant death breathing down his neck.
What more can I say? THE BAYOU TRILOGY is dark, brilliant word craft that, for those of you so inclined, will prompt you to yellow highlight at least one passage per page (not recommended with an eReader). The characters will echo through your mind for weeks and months afterward. If you missed these books a decade or two ago, here is your major chance to make amends.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 2, 2011
The Bayou Trilogy: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and the Ones You Do