My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is on the surface a state-of-the-art literary novel: lyrical-vernacular, regionally “authentic,” gritty but beautiful, a good old American book in the vein of Faulkner. Much better than the movie, too, which had only a mechanistic camera eye to dwell with the cold voyeurism of the metropolitan art-house audience on the meth skin, the flayed squirrels, and all the rest of it. But the novel is narrated from the inside of its protagonist, its narrative voice half-writerly and half-oral, the whole experience of the prose therefore alive with the world it evokes, a world materialized in language, not shown to us but recreated fully in another medium. A cynical style of literary theory—cf. Terry Eagleton or Nancy Armstrong—would not differentiate between the film and the novel on this count, seeing in both a sort of resource-extraction and anthropological/imperial knowledge production about this novel’s particular “periphery”—the Ozarks—for benefit of the cultural core—Hollywood, the NYC lit. scene, and academia, essentially. But this is to neglect the power of fictional language, which, when we read it, occupies our bodies and minds more viscerally than photographic images, or at least it does mine. You have to act out a novel to read it; you have to become this language, this way of sensing and thinking, the words forming in your mouth and sounding intimately in your mind.
Anyway, Woodrell’s storytelling abilities are strong; give him a few pages and he’ll have you till the end of the book. But despite this novel’s packaging (and filmic adaptation) as a sociological noir—”Sit on the edge of your seat and get a social-studies lesson”—it’s thankfully a much stranger and stronger novel than that.
The main character, sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly, can’t fail to win our sympathy with her intense inwardness, seemingly greater than that of anyone around her. In a scenario that goes back to Hamlet at least, we find a sensitive soul fallen among the brutal denizens of an ancient honor culture. And despite the other characters’ (and the book jacket’s) praise for her “sand” and “grit” and whatnot, she is really fairly passive, spending the whole last quarter of the narrative as an invalid being pushed or driven around by various characters according to their own agendas. Moreover, this is no mystery novel: she willfully commits herself to not knowing the truth about the novel’s animating murder, and so we the readers never find out either (unless I missed it—I’m bad at mysteries). She also does not make any real attempt, à la Huck Finn, to rise above or transcend her surroundings—on the contrary, she explicitly accepts the values of her people. Who is Ree? She is a vehicle for various impressions and perceptions, a drifting aesthete, implicitly queer and a hundred times more sensitive than anyone else in the vicinity. Winter’s Bone is a shadowed artist’s book, a Künstlerroman with a heroine who’s never heard of art—a wry cross-gendered self-reflection, I guess, on Woodrell’s own early background, if his author bio (which matches Ree’s story in several particulars) is anything to go by.
This sly and brilliant authorial manipulation of genre—a modernist novel of consciousness disguised as reportorial crime fiction—doesn’t totally work. Very few of the other characters come wholly into focus, with the exception of Uncle Teardrop, the lovable and dangerous surrogate father-figure on the periphery. Ree’s relationship with her best friend Gail—clearly homoerotic on Ree’s side—is perhaps the most moving thing in the novel. Woodrell recalls absolute but unfulfillable erotic longing, the pure sensation of being sixteen years old. This relationship also allows for a careful differentiation between two character “types”—the creative, willful, sensitive soul who can eventually accept the world and settle down, on the one hand, and on the other hand the one who cannot. Is there anything more tenderly, gently erotic than Ree’s invitation of Gail into her bed?—
Ree held the quilts pulled wide, patted the sheet, and said, “One log alone won’t hold fire.”
But, alas, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange, a passage of mined plangency, we learn that their love can’t be:
Ree said, “You didn’t like it? You gonna tell me you didn’t like it?”
“I liked it. I liked it, but not enough.”
Woodrell’s prose is often beautiful, compressed and vivid, the potential preciousness of its lyricism undercut with oral rhythms:
There was a nice curly maple dresser with a mirror that had been Aunt Bernadette’s before the flash flood caught her dawdling strangely on the low bridge and never even gave her body back. Hard not to see glimpses of her face in the creek or the mirror since.
Sometimes, though, he lapses into portentous excesses of the type that may remind one of B. R. Myers’s notorious, overstated, and not-entirely-wrong “Reader’s Manifesto”:
Moons of ache glowed in spaces of her meat and when she moved the moons banged together and stunned.
The novel has a persistent abstract or vaguely allegorical idiom for Ree’s (often drugged with various substances) mental states, an attempt—as much Woolfian or Lawrentian as Faulknerian—to articulate the mental experience of a character without much language for inwardness. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I respect the effort:
Walnuts were falling when Ree saw him last. Walnuts were thumping to ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view…
The novel eschews any reference to anything larger than its world of the Dolly clan, besides a few spare evocations of what comes through the static as public TV (including, most amusingly, Wishbone, alluded to but unnamed, as if Woodrell were bidding to have his novel featured on a future revival of that show: Winter’s Wishbone). It’s a novel without reference to politics, philosophy, or the literary tradition (though its literary antecedents are recognizable, those I’ve named and perhaps also Wallace Stevens with his “mind of winter”). Nature provides the novel’s only named frame for experience, nature and the ambient-sound tapes Ree listens to in order to imagine that she’s in some other nature. From snow to sun, from water to sky, from hill to valley—that is the novel’s vision of the larger movements of our lives, and this drift of the atmosphere is sufficient unto itself, not even doing duty—as in Greek tragedy, for instance—as fate. In a setting where culture is this thin, nature is not imposed upon by many meanings. Nature, therefore, is grist for the beautiful mill of Ree’s aesthetic mind: from nature to art, apparently without the mediation of concepts or institutions—this is the novel’s fantasy. Such utopian aestheticism is what above all marks this as a state-of-the-art literary novel. I have to wonder if it’s enough. This is a very, very, very, very good book. If I’m being severe and Harold Bloomian, though, I’d have to say it probably falls short of being a great one. But four “very”s ain’t nothing—I enjoyed Winter’s Bone immensely and will read more Woodrell in the future.