Ron Rash may be the patron saint of country noir here at Hillbilly Highways, but it was Daniel Woodrell who coined the term “country noir” in the first place. He has always exemplified the country noir ethos, going back to his earliest work. The Bayou Trilogy was a conscious attempt to combine what he learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, pulp detective story sensibilities, and his mom’s French-American river culture heritage.
Woodrell’s earlier work fell out of print before he hit it big with the movie adaptation of Winter’s Bone. That success led Mulholland Books to put out an omnibus collecting his debut trilogy, consisting of Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do. I consumed it in audiobook form, as narrated by Bronson Pinchot.
All three books are set in the fictional St. Bruno and feature city police detective Rene Shade. Country noir should have a great sense of place, even if that place is fictional, and the Bayou Trilogy has it in spades. St. Bruno is a river town, upriver on the might Mississippi from New Orleans (as best I can tell it is heavily based on St. Charles, Missouri, but is considerably further downriver). It is big enough to be called a city, not big enough to be called major. I love the description from copy: “In the parish of St. Bruno, sex is easy, corruption festers, and double-dealing is a way of life.” Corruption in city hall and the police department plays an important role in the first two books. Adding at least a veneer of fictionality opens up the door for worldbuilding, and Woodrell takes advantage. He could have written stories set in St. Bruno for the rest of his life if he hadn’t lost interest. Like any good and segregated American city, St. Bruno has its districts. Most important for the trilogy is Frogtown, home to the city’s lower class residents of French origin.
Rene Shade is out of Frogtown. He is a Frogtown native, a former boxer, and a cop torn between one brother who is a dirty bartender and another brother who is a slightly less dirty district attorney). His background makes him both valuable and untrustworthy in the eyes of the brass. There is a similar duality to how he is viewed by the residents of Frogtown. He is both one of them, someone they knew as a kid, know his dad’s nefarious exploits back in the day, know what kind of patron patronizes his brother’s bar. But he is also not one of them, a cop, an external oppressive force. Rene himself, of course, feels pulled in two directions. More than two directions. Frogtown social norms with more local weight than the law. The take-what-you-can ethos of his father and all the other crooks he spent his whole life around. The unyielding demands of justice. The political demands of a corrupt department. How Rene balances among the pull of those competing forces, and the commitments he makes to one set of interests over another, form the core through line of the trilogy.
Under the Bright Lights
I’ve long been of the view that you can set a country noir in the city. After all, cities are full of folks from the country. For all the talk of Rene above, he sorts of sneaks in through the backdoor in Under the Bright Lights. We’re first introduced to Jewel Cobb, a dirt road bandit enticed to the bright lights of the city by the promise of easy money. His criminal christening in St. Bruno culminated in a hit that goes wrong, as they do. That hit is connected to another, this one on black man on the city council. With its pulp noir and hardboiled influences, the plot of Under the Bright Lights is suitably baroque and twisted in two to three ways. Jewel Cobb and the convoluted plot were both big selling points for me, as were the various slightly higher level crooks and pols attempting to pull strings (with some confusion over who is who). Under the Bright Lights also benefits from the best climax of the trilogy by far, a bloody, tense scene deep in a dark swamp.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Muscle for the Wing
The events of Muscle for the Wing are precipitated by out of town thugs hitting a card game. The robbery upsets both the political and criminal establishments in St. Bruno. The thugs are part of a prison outfit called the Wing, hence the title. The story of how they got there is suitably convoluted. Rene plays a bigger role here. He gets tapped by the brass to get to the bottom of things. It becomes apparent that this is the sort of thing that could get one in the brass himself . . . or facedown in a sluggish bayou. To solve the problem, whether by means legal or extralegal, he is paired not with his old partner (another highlight of Under the Bright Lights) but instead with Shuggie, an old buddy from Frogtown and lieutenant to the local kingpin. Shuggie is a highlight, but the other criminal characters don’t quite hold up to those of Under the Bright Lights. Woodrell also ends the book too abruptly. Listening to the omnibus audiobook, I was briefly confused when the next book started. If I learned a chapter or two mistakenly got cut, I wouldn’t be surprised.
4 of 5 Stars.
The Ones You Do
There is a clear trend across the trilogy, but The Ones You Do marks the sharpest departure from the other two. It is only sort of tangentially a crime novel. The plot powers into motion when John X Shade’s girlfriend steals $47k, leaving him and their daughter holding the bag. If that name sounds familiar, it is because John X is Rene’s daddy (and Tip’s and Francois’s). His flight from ready pistolero Lunch, erstwhile owner of the $47k, leads him back to St. Bruno and the family he had long abandoned. The Ones You Do departs from many of the tropes of the first two books. There are no politics. Rene is barely a cop, on suspension for the entirety of the novel. Lunch is a great villain, and there is an absolutely bonkers sequence involving two tourists from Nebraska (or maybe Iowa . . . somewhere in corn country). But, again, this is barely a crime novel. It is much more introspective than the first two books, more a family drama. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t a great family drama, and literary merit simply isn’t mutually exclusive with pulp entertainment. The climax is again unsatisfying, albeit in a different way than Muscle for the Wing. Where that book ends before the story is quite over, the ending here mostly just fizzles, although there is a literary logic to it I can appreciate on some level. The Ones You Do is surely the most satisfying of the three to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop crowd, which almost necessarily makes it the weakest book in the trilogy.
3.5 of 5 Stars.
Audiobooks are a new affliction for me, and The Bayou Trilogy was my first foray into country noir on tape. (Figuratively speaking. Cassette tape would certainly be a more appropriate vehicle for this sort of tale than streaming via smartphone app.) I’ve been leery of listening to a country noir. Voice is so important for the subgenre, and for an audiobook that means literal voice. It helps here, I think, that most of the characters are coonasses, not hillbillies. It also helps that I was able to pick up three books for one Audible credit.
All three books are voiced by Bronson Pinchot. Pinchot is most famous for playing Balki on Perfect Strangers (I loved that show), but he has a pretty robust career as an audiobook narrator in addition to his acting and home rehab-salvage work. He performs ably, if unevenly. Woodrell’s prose leaves ample room for flair in narration, and Pinchot responds with great gusto. His rendition of Shuggie’s dialogue in Muscle for the Wing is a particular highlight. I’ve listened to several audiobooks now with both male and female narrators, and a common thread is that the narrator struggles more with the voices for the opposite sex. That remains true here. Every female character Pinchot voices sounds like a great slab of a woman who spends her days pinning down a couch in front of a singlewide trailer. Its ill-suited for a character like Wanda Bone Bouvier, the femme fatale from Muscle for the Wing. A woman like that needs a little smoke in her voice.
4 of 5 Stars (for the entire trilogy, as narrated).
Jim Markel on The Bayou Trilogy at Swampland.
Sarah L. Courteau on The Bayou Trilogy at the Chicago Tribune.