Country Noir: Raylan: A Novel by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard has been inordinately successful getting his books adapted to the screen.  Justified, the TV show based on the character Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from Pronto, Riding the Rap, and the short story Fire in the Hole (the last adapted for the Justified pilot), is as good as any Leonard adaption.  Seeing his characters with such incredible life breathed into him had to have spurred Leonard return to Givens with his novel Raylan (which was to be his last).

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Short Review Roundup: Elmore Leonard Edition

I have been on a bit of an Elmore Leonard kick here lately.  His work has everything I like about country noir, but in an easily digestible, popcorn style and form.  My gateway to Elmore Leonard was the great Justified (which I still need to buy on blu-ray, rewatch, and blog about extensively).  I was admittedly thrown off by my first Elmore Leonard novel, Raylan.  Raylan suffered from covering ground already covered by the show.  But it really suffered from eastern Kentucky not being Leonard’s turf.  His work is always better in Florida, I think.

Elmore Leonard, Miami Bookfair International, 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Country Noir: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

“This is who I am.  I can’t change.  I don’t want to, really.  But for once I’m gonna put this devil inside me to good use.”

S.A. Cosby impressed me with Blacktop Wasteland.  He absolutely blew me away with Razorblade Tears.

A killer premise is always a good start.  Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee are plenty different.  Ike is black; Buddy Lee is white.  Ike built a business from the ground up and employs crews of workers; Buddy Lee’s work history is checkered at best.  Ike is a comfortable business and home owner; Buddy Lee lives in a dilapidated single-wide trailer with a window unit that pushes around lukewarm air.  Ike is happily married; Buddy Lee hasn’t been in a serious relationship since his son’s mom left him.  But they have a few things in common too.  Both did time in prison.  Both have ample capacity to deal out violence.  Neither could accept their son’s homosexuality.  Their sons who were married to each other.  Who were just murdered.

To paraphrase Solomon Kane, men will die for that.

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Country Noir: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

When you really love a subgenre, you don’t want to read the same thing over and over again, but you do want to see tweaks and new takes on your cherished tropes.  Blacktop Wasteland falls right square in the country noir subgenre.  It distinguishes itself from the field not just with execution but with a protagonist who is a wheelman (and all the car chases the choice suggests) and African-American.

1971 Plymouth Duster pic by Kevauto
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Country Noir: My Father Like a River by Ron Rash

My Father Like a River includes two short stories: the title story and the longer The Trusty.  The Trusty was also published in Rash’s short story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay.  It’s as good now as it was when I read Nothing Gold Can Stay, but I’m disappointed to see a story I already own and have read.  As is usually the case with Rash, both stories take place in the mountains of NC.

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Country Noir: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

It is rare that a book is considerate enough to explain itself in one pithy paragraph.  It is ever rarer for it to be appropriate to start a review by quoting the last paragraph of a book.  But both are true for The Tilted World.

This story is a story with murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, dynamite and deluge.  A ruthless husband, a troubled uncle, a dangerous flapper, a loyal partner.  A woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little every day.  A man who felt invisible.

But most of all, this is a love story.  This is the story of how we became a family.

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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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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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