My dad ran a few sheep on a small farm south of Cabool, Missouri. Neighbor dogs ran together, sometimes, chasing the sheep, and one big mutt led them. Dad, who’d grown up in Indiana where the rules of country life were somewhat different, shot the leader and dumped the body down an old dug well. In a day or so, the dog’s owner came calling—and he came more than once. I was five, and all I remember was that the man wore heavy boots and that he was very, very angry, but without the corpus delecti he couldn’t prove my dad had shot the dog.
Almost everybody likes dogs, but for men back in the hills, dogs can matter more than the wife and kids.
That’s pretty much what Woodrell’s “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” the first in his collection of twelve stories, is about. The narrator’s wife has a dog named Bitsy that kills guineas on the neighbor’s farm, and the neighbor, like my dad, is not from the Ozarks, but Minnesota. The neighbor shoots Bitsy and the narrator shoots the neighbor, then spends several days mutilating the body before he dumps it in the deep woods.
“Returning the River” works the same ground. It opens quite dramatically with a young man running across frozen furrows, and his almost-dead father trying to catch him, but then falling down, bruising his frail skin, breaking off his oxygen supply. This is because the young man has set fire to the new neighbor’s fine new house, which blocks a view of the river that the young man, the father, and generations before have revered. He’ll rebuild that house, the young man’s brother says. Yes, but Dad will be dead by then.
Woodrell is often compared to Faulkner, and in “The Horse in Our History,” a story evoking small towns from a hundred years ago, you can see why:
A Saturday in summer, the town square bunched with folks in for trading from the hills and hollers, hauling okra, tomatoes, chickens, goats, and alfalfa honey. Saturday crowds closed the streets around the square to traffic, and it became a huge veranda of massed amblers . . . Farmers in bib overalls with dirty seats, sporting dusted and crestfallen hats, raising pocket hankies already made stiff and angular with salt dried from sweat wiped during the hot wagon ride to town. In the shops and shade there were others, wearing creased town clothes, with the white hankies of gentlefolk folded to peak above breast pockets in a perfect suggestion of gentility and standing . . . The hardware store was busy all day, and the bench seats outside became heavy with squatting men who spit brown splotches toward the gutter. Boys and girls hefted baskets of produce, ate penny candy, and screamed, begged nickels so they could catch the cowboy matinee at the Avenue Theater.
Wow. I have the barest memory of this kind of scene, on the square at Ava, and it was almost gone even then. Woodrell catches it perfectly.
Another oddly-titled story, “Black Step,” is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. It features a shell-shocked Iraq War veteran who’s been in and out of treatment and can function again, but is so numbed by war he cannot feel. A woman visits him for sex and he tries his best, but his mind wanders. She wants to get married and he doesn’t know why. Word comes that he’s cleared to go to war again, and his mother tells him the woman who wants to marry him has been asking around how much he’d be worth dead. The story drops you into such a pit of hopelessness that it’s hard to take.
Faulkner was often pretty funny, and at first blush, Woodrell doesn’t seem to be. He glories in violence and his characters are all misfits whose triumphs, if they could be said to have any, are often perverse. Then I read, “Dream Spot,” about a married couple driving along, bickering, bickering, who encounter a hitchhiker—a young woman. The wife immediately accuses her husband of lust and infidelity and predicts he’ll run off with the girl. The husband denies it and finally stops the car, puts it in reverse, and aims it for the girl—not to pick her up but to hit her. The hitchhiker manages to dodge the car, which veers off the road and down into a gully. The man and wife “hung upside down, hidden from the road and doomed together.” The hitchhiker steals the woman’s purse and the man’s wallet. The man looks over at his wife as if to say, “You happy now?” And the woman, lips bleeding, almost smiles. Well, as a satire of marriage, that’s pretty funny.
Depressing, violent, dazzling, melodramatic, lush, funny, strangely-titled, lovely stuff.