Country Noir: Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

It is remarkable that it has taken this long to see a novel published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  That work, Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, is a good’n’.

Cowney Sequoyah is a young Cherokee man.  A club foot has saved him from (or robbed him of, depending on the perspective) service in WWII.  The dearth of available labor and the need of somewhere to house foreign dignitaries/prisoners gives him the opportunity for good work outside of the Qualla Boundary on the grounds crew at the Grover Park Inn.  An initial carpool there brings him into the orbit of Essie Stamper, a beautiful young Cherokee woman working as a maid at the Grove Park for the summer.

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Country Noir: The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell, narrated by Bronson Pinchot

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.

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Country Noir: Hillbilly Hustle by Wesley Browne

It wasn’t Tonya Harding’s white trash roots that sold me on I, Tonya as a country noir flick, or even the homemade fur coat.  It was the intense incompetence of the men tasked with doing the deed against Nancy Kerrigan.  Incompetent crooks hold a special place in the subgenre.  There are archvillains, to be sure, but country noir storytellers recognize that most criminals are knuckleheads (which certainly reconciles with my own time working in the criminal justice system).

Hillbilly Hustle has a knucklehead for a protagonist, Knox Thompson.  He doesn’t stand a chance once he is in the web of archvillain Burl.

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SF: Comanche by Brett Riley

Raymond Turner has a problem.  The New Orleans-based private investigator crawled into a bottle when his wife died and has only crawled out with considerable effort and grace on the part of his partner.

The town of Comanche, Texas has a problem.  Over one hundred and thirty-five years ago several townspeople killed the Piney Woods Kid and desecrated his corpse.  Now the ghost of the Piney Woods Kid is exacting his revenge on the descendants of those townspeople, haunting the grounds of the historic depot where his body was dismembered—newly renovated and opened as a diner by the town mayor.

Fortunately, the mayor’s wife is Turner’s sister.  Turner’s chance for redemption is Comanche’s chance for salvation.

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Country Noir: When These Mountains Burn by David Joy

When These Mountains Burn may be David Joy’s best novel yet.  Fires are burning across the mountains of North Carolina in late 2016, and wildfire smoke casts a heavy pall over even the unburned areas.  More figurative fires are burning as well, with an equally heavy pall cast by the opioid epidemic.  Those figurative fires will touch Ray, a mountain of a man, a retired forester, and the father of an addict, and Denny Rattler, an addict himself, a petty thief, and a Cherokee.

(If you heard about these fires on the news, and you probably didn’t, it was likely only when they hit Gatlinburg.)

“The way these mountains have been burning, I knew there was some kind of end coming.  I knew it.  I just couldn’t see it.  I come here to kill you.”

The use of the fires as a literary device is both obvious and effective.  Coyotes provide a minor literary device, with Ray ruminating that “he’d watched mountain people and culture be damn near extirpated over the course of a few decades, while those dogs had been persecuted for a century and thrived.”

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Country Noir: In the Valley by Ron Rash

Ron Rash is a master of the short story, but a reader’s conclusion on In the Valley will depend on the title story, a novella set in the world of and featuring the title character from Serena that takes up half the volume.

I am not the target audience, to the extent it is possible for me to not be the target audience for a Rash work.  Serena remains my least favorite Rash novel, and any attempt at another story featuring Serena is handicapped by the novel telling the end of her story.  Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by In the Valley, and it is well accompanied by the preceding stories.

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Country Noir: Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

Brian Panowich returns to McFalls County with Hard Cash Valley.  But don’t expect another entry in the annals of the Burroughs family.  Panowich is moving on with (almost entirely) new characters and a new story.  It is still a very country noir story in a very country noir setting with a very country noir atmosphere.

The main character is Dane Kirby, a former arson investigator for the fire department and sheriff in the next county over relegated to a desk job with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  He is damaged goods—broken by personal tragedy and in poor health—but the FBI pulls him into the investigation of a brutal murder after a simple plan gone wrong.  The killing was done in Florida, but it has ties to a cockfighting tournament held in McFalls County.  One man is dead, but his 11-year-old brother is still out there.

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Fiction: Fields of Fire by Jim Webb

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War measuring from the fall of Saigon.  Remarkably, the death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. passed the death toll from the Vietnam War (58,220 by one count) this week.  Jim Webb is better known around these parts for his entry in the Hillbilly Studies corpus, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, but he also wrote a very fine war novel that draws heavily from his personal experiences in Vietnam.

Hodges, the primary protagonist in Webb’s Fields of Fire is a young, cocky lieutenant fresh out of the Naval Academy (Webb went to Vietnam as a young, cocky lieutenant fresh out of the Naval Academy).  Goodrich’s experiences when he returns to Harvard are reminiscent of Webb’s experiences at Georgetown University Law Center after he returned from Vietnam, as relayed in Born Fighting.

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Fiction: The Son by Philipp Meyer

The Son is less one long book than three ones. The book covers four generations of a Texas family: a frontiersman turned cattle baron captured by the Comanche, his titular son, and his great-granddaughter, an heiress turned oil baroness. The problem is that it is one very, very good book and a couple mediocre ones.

The first story, about the “Colonel” as he’s referred to elsewhere, is the best and can’t be treated as anything other than the main story. His family settled on the frontier of Texas in the 1800s, and he was captured by Comanche is a raid. He starts as a slave and becomes a Comanche warrior. Meyer’s research on the Comanche shows. If only he could have done more research on the rest of the story.

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Country Noir: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Country noir isn’t quite regional.  Or, rather, it is regional in that it is a subgenre that demands a sense of place.  But it isn’t tied to any particular region.  It does even really need to be set in the country.  You could (and someone really should) write an excellent country noir set in the former hillbilly enclave in Uptown Chicago.  That being said, the western half of North Carolina has provided the setting for a truly disproportionate number of quality country noir tales.  Ron Rash is the dean of the country noir oeuvre (fight me, Daniel Woodrell fans), but ably following in his footsteps are David Joy and Wiley Cash.

This Dark Road to Mercy is my first Wiley Cash novel (he has written three).  I found it a flawed work, but a thoroughly enjoyable one nonetheless and one that shows frequent flashes of brilliance.

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