Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review

Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell’s 1996 novel, Give Us a Kiss, is set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table. It is the story of a hillbilly family, and specifically the story of two hillbilly brothers: Doyle Redmond, age 35, and his 39-year-old brother, Smoke. Doyle is the main character in the book and is telling the story in his first-person voice.

Doyle is something of a conflicted hillbilly. He can never get away from his hillbilly roots, but after he left the town of West Table he became something more than a hillbilly: he went to college, became a semi-successful writer with four non-selling books to his credit, and was once married to a striving, snooty bitch named Lizbeth. (The name alone says it all.)

When Doyle returns to West Table after an absence of several years, he embraces all that is hillbilly and all that he left behind (as exemplified by his elderly grandfather, Panda). He moves in with his brother, Smoke, and Smoke’s girlfriend, Big Annie, in their trailer home out in the country. Big Annie has a beautiful 19-year-old daughter named Niagra (after the movie of the same name with Marilyn Monroe). Despite the age disparity (Doyle is 35 and Niagra is 19), we know the two of them are going to be a hot item.

We learn that Doyle and Smoke, in their younger days, were hell-raisers of the highest order and were frequently on the wrong side of the law (typical of their family). Now, as men approaching middle age, they grow a marijuana crop out in the woods where they believe it will never be detected. They nurture the crop until it is ready to harvest and process into saleable pot bricks (with the aid of a trash compactor and large bottles of Coca-Cola). Just as they are ready to sell the crop and get the long-awaited bundle of money the crop will bring, they are betrayed and fall afoul of a nasty hillbilly family called the Dollys. (Murder and Mayhem are the Dolly family’s stock in trade.) The Dollys and the Redmonds have a history of bad blood between them going back many years and several generations.

Daniel Woodrell is the leading exemplar of hillbilly fiction in American letters. Give Us a Kiss is another fast-paced page-turner from him about rednecks living the hillbilly dream. And aren’t the lives of hillbillies a lot more fun and so much more interesting (as Mr. Woodrell has proved in book after book) than college professors, Wall Street brokers, doctors and lawyers? Those people bore me unto death. Who wants to read about them?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell continues his saga of the lowbrow Shade family in the 1992 novel, The Ones You Do. This novel, of course, follows the earlier Shade novels Under the Bright Lights from 1986 and Muscle for the Wing from 1988. These three novels are set, for the most part, in the fictional town of St. Bruno, a small city located on the banks of a large U.S. river. (We assume the river is the Mississippi, although the name is never mentioned; neither is the state that St. Bruno is in.)

The principal character of The Ones You Do is John X. Shade. He is the sixty-two-year old patriarch of the Shade family. He is, possibly, one step up from being a bum. He has ruined his health with alcohol, smoking, and chasing after the ladies. His one accomplishment in life is that when he was younger, he was a competitive pool player. He made his living from betting on pool games and then taking the money from the suckers who played with him. His pool game isn’t what it used to be, however; his hands shake from alcoholism and his eyesight is shot. When he was in his twenties, he married a fourteen-year-old girl named Monique Blanqui (in a shotgun wedding) and fathered three sons (Tip, Rene and Francois) with her, whom he proceeded to abandon to pursue his own selfish pleasures.

Later in life, long after he and Monique are divorced, John X. Shade marries a much younger woman named Randi Tripp. She is a “singer,” calls herself the ‘Bama Butterfly, and is determined to become a big-time singer. She and John X. have a punkish, ten-year-old daughter named Etta, who has a mullet hairdo, a crucifix earring and bizarre makeup.

John X. Shade has been keeping a large sum of money ($47,000) for one Lunch Pumphrey, a sociopathic gunman, in the safe of the bar where he works. To repay John X. for all his failings as a husband, Randi Tripp steals the $47,000 and takes off for parts unknown to pursue her showbiz career. Well, as you might have guessed, Lunch Pumphrey wants his money and his plenty peeved that John X. Shade does not have it in the safe at the bar where he works. He will kill over a lot less.

Throughout the novel, Lunch Pumphrey pursues John X. Shade, and John X. Shade eludes him, barely, with his weird daughter, Etta, in tow. A showdown between Lunch Pumphrey and John X. Shade is inevitable and comes in the final chapter. John X. Shade’s family can forget about him showing up for his ex-wife Monique’s birthday party.

The Ones You Do is part crime novel, part Southern Gothic, part small-town elegy, part character study. One of the major themes of the novel is “the way things used to be but no longer are.” As with all Daniel Woodrell’s novels (I’ve read them all at least once), it’s good reading and well worth the time and small amount of effort it takes to read it.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

We first met boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade in Daniel Woodrell’s 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights. He’s back two years later in Muscle for the Wing, another crime romp set in the fictional bayou city of St. Bruno. Muscle for the Wing is not as atmospheric as  Under the Bright Lights, but there’s still plenty of murder, mayhem and people doing ugly things to each other.

Wanda Bone Bouvier is the redhaired femme fatale in Muscle for the Wing. (She inflames men’s passions, don’t you know.) She’s married to the much-older Ronnie Bouvier, who is behind bars.  She claims to love Ronnie, but that does not keep her from being carnally unfaithful with tough-guy Emil Jadick. She’s going to get revenge on Emil for Ronnie’s sake (and at his direction from the state penitentiary), but she admits openly that she “digs” Emil’s muscular body. (She’s a good-time girl who will take her fun wherever she can get it.) Emil wants Wanda to be his number-one girl—and his alone—not knowing she will eventually hurt him in a big way. When she gets a job as a do-anything stripper in a naughty nightclub, it’s all part of Ronnie’s plan.

When young, off-duty police officer Gerry Bell is shot to death at a gentlemen’s poker game at the country club by intruders set on robbing the wealthy poker players, police officer Rene Shade is called in to figure out what happened. Evidence leads to Emil Jadick and his two dimwitted associates, all members of a white supremacist prison clique called “the Wing.”

World-weary, boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade has lived in St. Bruno his whole life; he knows the city and he knows the people. In investigating the murder of Gerry Bell, he’s drawn into a morass of crime and corruption, involving some of his old friends and associates, including friend-since-childhood Shuggie Zeck, who beats his wife to a bloody pulp. In St. Bruno, everybody is tainted in some way. There’s no such thing as innocence. Everybody is guilty of something. You can’t even tell the good people from the bad ones.

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. If you like redneck noir, nobody does it better. His books are a delight to read, even if you are on your second reading. I highly recommend The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Under the Bright Lights ~ A Capsule Book Review

Under the Bright Lights ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell (born 1952) is among the best current American writers. His novels The Death of Sweet Mister, Tomato Red, and The Maid’s Version are among my favorites. His 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights, is a noirish story set in the fictional Missouri town of Saint Bruno, a medium-sized city of 200,000 residents. Saint Bruno sits on edge of the roiling, mysterious Mississippi River and has a distinctly Southern quality to it, as well as a French flavor. A lot of the residents of Saint Bruno are of French descent; a largely French section of town is known as “Frogtown.”

When Arthur Rankin, prominent black politician and porno-movie theatre owner, is shot and killed in his own home, police detective Rene Shade is called in to investigate. Rene is a former boxer who might have been a “contendah” but wasn’t. He has lived in Saint Bruno his whole life and has a less-than-spectacular personal life, living over a poolroom with his mother. In his professional capacity as police detective, he peels back the layers of corruption to get to the truth behind the murder of Arthur Rankin. There are low-level gangsters and high-level gangsters, shady politicians (sometimes politicians and gangsters are the same thing), thugs, bimbos, redneck punks, losers, not-very-bright paid killers, and lots of local color in the steamy river town of Saint Bruno, Missouri. Oh, and let us not forget, there’s a slam-bam climactic scene and shootout in the primeval swamp called “Marais de Croche” (Crooked Swamp). You wouldn’t want to be stuck in this creepy swamp alone at night. You might never get out.

Under the Bright Lights is an atmospheric, smart-talking, tightly written short novel (160 pages) by a very talented writer, Daniel Woodrell. I met him once at one of his book signings in St. Louis and he’s as unpretentious in person as his writing is impressive on the printed page.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Tomato Red ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tomato Red ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell (b. 1953) is one of the best and most innovative of current American writers. His 1998 novel, Tomato Red, is set in the fictional town of West Table, in the Missouri Ozarks, in a poor section of town known as Venus Holler. Jamalee Merridew is nineteen years old, with hair the color of tomatoes. She has a seventeen-year-old brother named Jason Merridew, “the prettiest boy in the Ozarks.” (He has green eyes and full, pouty lips.) “Grown-up women,” Jamalee says, “throw their underpants at Jason with their phone numbers written on them in the grocery store.” Jason is a hairdresser; the fact that he is gay does not deter his female admirers.

Bev Merridew is Jamalee and Jason’s mother. She is about forty years old, is a whore and apparently has always been a whore. She lives in a shack in Venus Holler, next door to the shack that Jamalee and Jason live in. She drinks and smokes cigarettes and entertains men. “If she had all the dicks sticking out of her that she’s had stuck in her,” Jamalee says, “she’d look like a porcupine.”

Enter one Sammy Barlach, a decidedly trashy drifter, twenty-four years old. (The novel is told in Sammy’s first-person voice.) One night when Sammy is doing a little house-breaking in the expensive part of West Table, he meets Jamalee and Jason in a mansion-like home. He believes they live there, but soon discovers they are also house-breakers like him. He latches on to them and later their mother, Bev, as his adopted family. He refers to them as “the bunch that would have me.”

Jamalee, Jason and their mother Bev are constantly reminded that they are “trash” and “rednecks” because of where they live, their low socio-economic status, their drinking and their general all-around “no-goodness.” Many people around town are openly hostile to them.

When Jason fails as a pay-for-his-services stud for the ladies (he just doesn’t have it in him), Jamalee goes for an interview at the country club for a job as hostess, during which she encounters the meanness of the country club set toward her “kind.” When she is bodily ejected, she and Jason and Sammy (they have been waiting outside in the car for her) are drawn into an ugly and insulting brawl with some of the country club people that results in fists being thrown.

In retaliation for their rejection and humiliation, Jamalee, Jason and Sammy make a middle-of-the-night raid on the country club and do some serious and costly damage to the golf course. Their mischief may give them some temporary satisfaction, but it ends up having serious consequences for them. In a battle between “white trash” and the “country club set,” guess who is always going to win?

Tomato Red is an almost perfect contemporary American novel, with fascinating and believable characters, killer dialogue, and an unhappy, but completely satisfying and pitch-perfect, ending. I’ve read it twice and I might read it again before the curtain falls. Another novel I love, also by Daniel Woodrell, is The Death of Sweet Mister. It’s another fascinating foray into the world of trashy rednecks and a perfect companion piece to Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Maid’s Version ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Maid's Version cover

The Maid’s Version ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. He is from Missouri and his characters are country people, poor white trash and small-town people. His novels are darkly realistic, spare (averaging about 200 pages), and are so much fun to read because they are so good and so different from a lot of current fiction that is bloated and pretentious. My favorite books by Daniel Woodrell are Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister. I went to one of his book signing events in St. Louis and came away with signed copies of both those books. Daniel Woodrell in person is about what you would expect him to be from his writing. There’s nothing flashy or pretentious about him. You wouldn’t know by looking at him that he’s a celebrated writer.

Daniel Woodrell’s latest book is The Maid’s Version. It is the fascinating story, set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table, of an illicit love affair that leads to tragic consequences. The maid of the title is one Alma Degeer Dunahew, an uneducated woman who is employed as a domestic in the home of one of the leading citizens of the town, Arthur Glencross. Arthur lives in a fine house with his wispy wife and two children and is president of the bank.

Alma has a difficult life. She lives in what is described as a shack. Her husband, named Buster, is a drunk and isn’t very reliable. She has to take care of three boys (one of whom, Sidney, is sick) out of her meager earnings. She also has a younger sister named Ruby, a vivacious girl who is popular with the men and who doesn’t much care whether they’re married or not. Ruby’s unlikely love affair with Arthur Glencross forms the emotional core of the novel. Arthur claims to be in love with Ruby but is terribly afraid that people will find out he is carrying on with her. Their meetings are furtive and passionate. Ruby is also in love with Arthur, so the secrecy is fine with her.

We learn at the beginning that Ruby, along with thirty-nine other people, dies tragically in a fire and explosion at a dance at the Arbor Dance Hall in 1929. (The unidentifiable victims, including Ruby, are buried in a mass grave in the town cemetery, marked by a black angel.) For decades people speculate about what, or who, caused the fire. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but nobody seems to know for sure. Was it a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who wanted to teach people a lesson about the wrath of God, or was it St. Louis gangsters? Any theories that people have are all unproveable.

The Maid’s Version isn’t told in linear style. It moves back and forth in time and from one character to another, making it seem a little disjointed and more challenging to read that it might otherwise have been. (Some of the brief sections throughout the novel are glimpses at the lives of people who died in the fire and of how they came to be at the dance.) All the pieces come together at the end, though, and we learn, finally, the truth of how the fire got started and what made it so much worse than in might otherwise have been. The explanation is ironic but completely plausible.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp