Hillbilly Creation Myth: Part III

by Matthew Brent Jackson

The grandeur of Robert Duvall and the secret of Daniel Woodrell.

In the world of adaptations, humming whispers arose. As I Lay Dying was to be filmed, and directed by the Uomo Universale, James Franco. Eventually he would be doing Blood Meridian also. Though Blood Meridian was apparently unadaptable for the screen, this Spider Man villain turned Yale PhD. candidate was going to make some dreams come true. He had been brought to Yale at the suggestion of Harold Bloom, the professor, who also happened to name Blood Meridian as the greatest American novel since As I Lay Dying. Franco would adapt both. Teacher’s pet.

In one press release it claimed that it would be the first Faulkner adaptation since 1959. But in 1972 there was a Faulkner adaptation, called “Tomorrow” starring Robert Duvall. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, you’ve probably seen Billy Bob Thornton rip-off Duvall’s performance in Sling Blade. Duvall has a tiny cameo in Sling Blade, a definite nod by Thornton to acknowledge just whose performance he was copying. Tomorrow was adapted by the Texan Horton Foote, who is most famous for adapting To Kill A Mockingbird, a film that is arguably better than its source. Notice a cameo in that one — Boo Radley, the first screen role of one Robert Duvall. He and Horton Foote also joined up for one of the great films of the 1980s, Tender Mercies. If you haven’t seen the movie, Duvall’s performance and character gets channeled through Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. At least Duvall was executive producer on that one.

Duvall is the best of his generation, but this is not understood. The Godfather is arguably the best Hollywood film of all time, but whom do we think of? Brando, Pacino, James Caan, DeNiro in Part II, the exquisitely talented John Cazale as Fredo, but we forget Tom Hayden played by Duvall. Indeed, Coppola forgot him too in the making of Part III, a movie therefore never to be viewed. Why do we forget Duvall? Why do we not recognize his genius? Because we do not see him acting. Watch To Kill A Mockingbird. That whole movie builds up to the pale stranger behind the door. If Duvall never made another film, that appearance as Boo Radley would be enough to make him eternal. You can impersonate Brando, you can impersonate Pacino or DeNiro. You can’t impersonate Duvall. He is always just the character. You can’t see him acting, so often you don’t see him at all.

His best role is also not recognized because it was in a TV miniseries, Lonesome Dove. Down at the ranch in Arkansas, Lonesome Dove the miniseries was essentially the equivalent of Emily Post: I was told to watch it multiple times; it was to teach me how to behave. Duvall as Gus McCrae is awesome. He makes the character more likeable than how McMurtry wrote him. Larry McMurty does not like his characters in Lonesome Dove. He kills them freely. In many ways his book is crueler than Blood Meridian. Here are the first and the last lines of Lonesome Dove: “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” Then “The woman,” Dillard whispered. “The woman. They say he missed that whore.” It’s a great book, but it’s also a very mean one.

I couldn’t read Lonesome Dove for twenty years because I couldn’t read it without hearing Duvall’s voice speaking the lines. McMurtry regrets having written a cowboy Gone With The Wind, but he’s wrong. It’s cowboy Lord of the Rings.

Daniel Woodrell is like Robert Duvall. At his best, you don’t see the hand writing it, you don’t see the ambition. But it’s there. These attempts are not made by accident. Woodrell knows that at his best, he crosses into the territory of greatness. Even his background in the genre of crime fiction is not inconsequential. Some of the best writing of the twentieth century was composed by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. Crime pays, but that doesn’t mean that those who toil in the fields of genre are somehow inferior. After all, Blood Meridian could be dismissed as just a western.

But Daniel Woodrell in Winter’s Bone is major. He does something perfect in that work. His influences are present but not oppressive. His ambition is clear, but it does not mar his writing. Here is the book’s first paragraph:

Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more torsos dangling by ropes from sagged limbs, venison left to weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.

The writing is poetic in itself, but it also has some Cormac McCarthy flavor — Woodrell is operating on the microbial level, describing how bacteria behave in hung game. McCarthy goes to the microscopic at points, remember the bat guano gunpowder recipe, but his work can read like natural history. I read one article on McCarthy where he was the only one in a room of scientific geniuses who knew that dolphins could commit suicide. McCarthy fans like that their master knows this kind of biological arcana, but Woodrell’s discussion is rooted in a mountain lore, a practical knowledge versus some grand autodidactic scholarship. What is more, this small paragraph serves a purpose in terms of plot: Ree Dolly is hungry as are the little brothers who are left in her care. The carcasses, suggestive of both killing and consumption, are also objects of longing. In terms of the plot, they are a reminder of what she lacks due to an absent father who has left his family with dwindling resources.

Woodrell is also not afraid of a female hero. McCarthy seems to have little interest in female characters from what I have read. They seem just to be present to move the plot along when necessary; their development is almost solely dependent on male action. In Winter’s Bone, it is the Ree Dolly show, and Woodrell offers a hero who takes care of business and who also happens to be a teenage girl. She is a fearless character, though this does not mean she lacks cunning. She reminds me of Britomart, the female knight of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, though I doubt Woodrell seeks this comparison. But if comparing a questing knight to a 21st century Ozarks girl sounds overblown, it should be noted that Winter’s Bone subtly functions as detective fiction, and the detective on the case has often been a replacement for the knight on a quest. Though some may find it unlikely, please note this moment from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The night had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in that house, I would sooner or later have to climb up and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

This presentation of Philip Marlowe, detective, as the remedy for an ineffective knight is not accidental on Chandler’s part, and though Ree Dolly is at the start just a teenage girl trying to find her missing father, she is definitely sleuthing throughout the novel. As far as knights in Winter’s Bone, the only approximate one is Wishbone the time-travelling dog, a public television children’s staple who makes a cameo appearance on Ree’s television wearing a suit of armor. If there is not exactly a medieval quality to Winter’s Bone, then it is apparent that there is a sense of ancient lineage that remains intact despite the passage of time.

The inhabitants of Woodrell’s Ozarks are holdouts. The current world affects, changes and pollutes them, but their values and lore remain present, a residue from the British Isles evoking a pre-Christian past. These are the savages the Romans came to tame though a certain wildness remains even after more than a thousand years and the crossing of an ocean. The Dollys are an ancient tribe, and though the Ozarks is a region populated with an excess of Protestants, it is clear to any reader of Vance Randolph, the dean of Ozark folklorists, that there are many Ozark superstitions and customs rooted in very old pagan traditions. For all their meth cooking and dealing, the Dollys have rules rooted in old ways. Though these rules can be violent and vicious, it is all according to a code. In general, one’s actions are determined by the behavior of another. Ree’s hungry brothers wait for their relatives to bring them food, and they want to ask for help. Ree sternly replies: “Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.”

She later learns that her father has broken the most fundamental rule of all: he has snitched and a shunning of his immediate family has resulted, but he has a court date and if he misses it, Ree’s family loses home and land. She must find him, but to do so she must seek him among her tightlipped criminal relations and neighbors. She is warned by her Uncle Teardrop not to go to Hawkfall, a nearby valley where her father has had dealings: “Don’t you, nor nobody else, neither ever go down around Hawkfall them people shit about stuff they aint offerin’ to talk about. That’s a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishin’ you was. You ain’t no silly-assed town girl. You know better’n that foolishness.” Her uncle warns not to pursue her father; she knows the rules, but Ree must follow her quest. In her heroic mode she must break the old code for the good of her immediate family.

Her journey to Hawkfall and her subsequent interactions have the quality of a descent: she is like Beowulf pursuing Grendel and his mother. She encounters silence, rejection and eventually a profound beating by the literally-named Mrs. Thump and her two sisters. These three sisters who seem an Ozark variant on MacBeth’s witches are brutal, but their savagery towards Ree eventually causes them to lead her to her father’s corpse in a frozen marsh. What happens next is a set of actions performed to satisfy the law and guarantee the security of Ree’s house and land, but it reads like some kind of pagan initiation ritual: she starts a tennager and ends a warrior. Ree has a baptism of sorts, and after her immersion, her world begins to be set right again. She ends with her house and land intact and money in her pocket. She has slain her dragons, and she’s going to get to buy a car.

I basically can find no real fault with Winter’s Bone. It is a tight read like crime fiction, but it goes so deep: it is rooted in a real place and one that is profoundly mysterious. Woodrell claims that Flannery O’Connor is his literary mother, and while this is true, he is also a genuine son of Faulkner. Cormac McCarthy’s debt to Faulkner is so profound that it can become imitation, yet Woodrell has internalized the logic of Faulkner if not the exact sound. Woodrell doesn’t sound like Faulkner exactly, but he seems to think like him in many ways, and as a result, Woodrell moves Faulkner forward in ways that McCarthy does not. Faulkner for all the modernist artifice, is often a writer concerned with mystery, whether it is the little mystery of Miss Emily Grierson’s rank smelling house, or the larger mystery of the South itself. Woodrell’s crime fiction connections are a more tangible link to Faulkner than it might first appear, for Faulkner was not uncomfortable with the detective story. Before he was a Nobel laureate, Faulkner had to make a living and writing film scripts was one method to get paid. His most famous script? An adapatation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall precede him in the credits.


Categories: Essay