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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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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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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