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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Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry).  Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia.  Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).

Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed.  It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy.  Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky.  The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal.  It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.

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Country Noir: One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

What better way to kick off a blog focusing on country noir with a review of my favorite book by my favorite author writing in the space?

One Foot in Eden is the story of a single, heinous murder and its ramifications on several interconnected lives.  Don’t let the beginning fool you, it’s really not a traditional crime novel; it’s a simpler story.  It’s less about the event than what it means to each character.  It’s also very much a novel about Place—the part of the South Carolina Upstate people used to call the Dark Corner, specifically the cove flooded to create Lake Jocassee.

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