Inspired by the hard-driving truth and uninhibited prose of Winter’s Bone, I am, without reservation, a fan of David Woodrell’s work, the iconic voice of rural America, a “backcountry Shakespeare” who taps into custom, loyalty, history and the particularities of life in St. Bruno, Louisiana, in this trilogy: Under the Bright Lights; Muscle for the Wing; and The Ones You Do.
The Shade family is featured in all three novels. Of the three brothers - Francois, Tip and Rene - it is Rene who embodies the dichotomies of community and law enforcement. Francois is a man to reckon with in the DA’s office. Tip runs the Catfish Bar, a club that caters to the criminal element as well as locals, and Rene is a St. Bruno’s detective. The paterfamilias, John X Shade, appears in the last volume, though his presence shadows the other tales. A heartbreaker and all-round degenerate, John X arrives with his ten-tear-old daughter, Etta, in tow, in yet another attempt to avoid the consequences of his latest misdeed.
Most of the joy is in the first two novels, stories that set the stage for all sorts of activities in St. Bruno, from the innocent and dysfunctional to the venal and brutal. An outrageous crime spree upsets the status quo, and Rene Shade tries to deliver justice while pleasing bosses more worried about political implications than his success. Shade (as Rene is called throughout) is a great character, morally conflicted, on the cusp of marriage to his independent girlfriend and all too familiar with the creeping criminality that surrounds him: “Everything came at you in disguise in this human stew.” The cast of miscreants is varied and colorful, from tattooed ex-cons to sultry dancers in smoky clubs with illegal backroom gambling, the usual mix of those who take their pleasures freely and frown on interference, quick to draw their guns in conflict.
Shade has his own demons, loves his drink and toke and the nights with his girlfriend, but is committed to his job and keeping the bad guys in check when they breach the porous boundaries of St. Bruno societal mores. Shade family history plays a large role, illustrating the many-layered loyalties of a place where the past is as potent as the present and childhood friends grow up to be as trustworthy as their greed and opportunities. Shade balances between, usually pulling away from violence - but not always - overshadowed by his father in the last volume as John X arrives in St. Bruno in his usual hit-and-run fashion.
Woodrell consistently delivers in a clear and authentic voice, capturing region and demographic with the affection of one born to love of place and conflicted loyalties. I am definitely on board with this talented arbiter of daily life in rural America.