Country Noir: Bearskin by James McLaughlin

Rick Morton is caretaker and science tech for over seven thousand acres of private nature preserve, a large chunk of which is old-growth forest.  He is also Rice Moore, an ex-con on the run from the Cartel.

Bearskin is gorgeously written but understated.  It’s literary without sacrificing plot.  It’s bloody without being mindless.  It contains a touch of the supernatural (maybe) and a touch of the surreal.  It walks a fine line between the people and the place of the mountains of Virginia.

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Country Noir: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

With Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich has given us a sprawling, multigenerational crime saga.  A hillbilly Godfather.  You know what you’re in for when you see the family tree.  Country noir novels should have family trees like fantasy novels have maps.

Bull Mountain starts with one fratricide.  It won’t be the last.

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Country Noir: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has given us a book that is right up the Hillbilly Highways alley gravel backroad.  It’s got granny women, moonshine, revenuers, moonshine runners, early stock car racing (with an appearance by Junior Johnson), end-of-the-road roadhouses and whorehouses, snake handlers, and an entire valley lost to the hillbillies so a dam could power the mills where the former farmers work for another man.  All nestled up in the mountains of northwest North Carolina where heading to civilization means Boone or Wilkesboro.

And all described by Brown with prose that is beautiful and powerful without being inaccessible or overly literary.  The prose reminds me a lot of another great country noir that I will be talking about in the nearish future, Bearskin by James McLaughlin; more so than, say, Daniel Woodrell or especially Cormac McCarthy.

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Country Noir: The Devil’s Country by Harry Hunsicker

The Devil’s Country is a popcorn book.  Enjoyable and easy to consume.  But not meaty or complex.  And not entirely satisfying.

Arlo Baines isn’t looking for trouble.  He is just looking for escape from the circumstances that led to the murder of his family.  But he isn’t exactly in the mood to run from trouble.  So, when the ex-Texas Ranger steps in between a woman on the run from a cult with her two small children and two gun thugs, he doesn’t step back.  It isn’t hard to go “tumbling down into the black canyon at the center of [Arlo’s] being.”

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Country Noir: Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash

Burning Bright is another collection of short stories set in and around rural Western North Carolina by the master, Ron Rash.  I think I would rank it third among the collections I’ve read, behind Chemistry and Other Stories and then Nothing Gold Can Stay, but that’s sainting with faint criticism.  There is nothing quite so good as Blackberries in June or Speckled Trout, but there also isn’t a truly weak story.

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Country Noir: Ohio by Stephen Markley

I can’t help but think that Ohio would have been a great book if Markley never went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Markley has a lot of talent, and there is a lot of good grist in there—even a real plot!—but Ohio displays all the worst tendencies of literary-minded fiction and it derails the book.

Ohio tells the interweaving stories of four twenty-somethings returning to their small, Rust Belt hometown.  The story is driven as much by who isn’t there as by who is (more on that in a bit).  I picked it up on the strength of Paul’s review at Paul’s Picks and comparisons to Friday Night Lights (in which you may have noticed some interest on my part).  I get Paul’s view and the comparison, but this is a book that falls well short of its potential.

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