First published in 1933, THE WOODS COLT is one of a few Ozarks classic novels, praised highly at the time and taken as representative of the region in centers of publishing and academia. As a small measure of the novel’s staying power, my second collection of stories, THE WALNUT KING, was published in 1990 by a small press in Kansas City called Woods Colt. Woods colt is Ozarks talk for bastard, thus Woods Colt Press traded on an underground image—a rejected, against-all-odds, faintly obscene, perhaps in bad taste, bastard image. THE WOODS COLT became a cult favorite over the years, generally with male writers who fancied themselves to be in the tradition of Hemingway and Erskine Caldwell, with a dash of Henry Miller thrown in just for scandal’s sake. In this manner of thinking, THE WOODS COLT is romantic. To bring the influence up-to-date, you might think of Jim Harrison and Daniel Woodrell.
First things first: Arkansas has done a splendid job of recreating the original text, even including the dark woodcuts of Raymond Bishop. I don’t know a thing about Raymond Bishop, but his illustrations are so wonderful that it’s doubtful the novel would have succeeded without them.
Here’s the story: Clint Morgan, a mule-headed and ignorant hillbilly/bush ape/hill person, is in love/lust with Tillie Starbuck. He has a rival, Ed Prather. Tillie may or may not be entirely faithful to Clint, but she’s certainly more levelheaded. Filled with rage, Clint corners Ed at the post office, where Ed works. This might seem like an ordinary scuffle between two hotheaded young men, but the post office setting makes the fight and the property damage a federal crime. Ed eagerly pursues the case, mainly to defeat Clint in the pursuit of Tillie. Clint walks right into Ed’s trap, wounding a federal officer, and later committing murder. The fates begin to close in on Clint but the reader follows him, fascinated, in his flight to the remotest hills.
Clint isn’t likable. He’s quick-tempered and stupid. He’s also real—we all knew people like him in our teen-aged years. Men still go crazy over women, one hopes, and Clint is a victim of Ed Prather’s cunning. And the reader never pulls back from the page because of the long, gripping chase scene in which Clint does, at last, seem sympathetic. Williamson brings the suspense up slowly, with little respites as Clint seeks food in the wilderness. Also, there’s a new love interest, a sad teenager named Nancy. That she’s fourteen adds to the novel’s slightly prurient edge. Maybe prurient is not the right word. Lurid–and compelling.
In his introduction, Ozarks scholar Phillip Howerton praises Williamson for his knowledge of folklore and Ozarks flora and fauna. He faults the novel for its stereotypical characterizations and for its inexact reproduction of Ozarks speech.
My quick test of Ozarks dialect is “allus” for “always,” which I discovered reading Vance Randolph and then listening to people talk. Allus is still widely used. Williamson, however, uses always for always. With that small measure, I judge Williamson’s dialect to be somewhat inaccurate, and certainly there’s too much of it.
With the towering example of Huck Finn not far in the past, novels written in dialect were popular in Williamson’s time. Faulkner, Caldwell, and especially Zora Neale Hurston were skilled practitioners. They all wrote about a region they grew up in, however, while Williamson seems to have been a quick study, and perhaps an opportunist. Anything for a book, so who could blame him? His seeking out, and obtaining, Vance Randolph’s endorsement shows a certain self-consciousness—and shrewdness.
As for the stereotypical characters, they rang true to me, much truer than the Arcadian hillfolk in THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS. The characters talk funny and make a lot of moonshine, but mostly they hate and love and scheme. The grannies are perhaps the most obvious stereotypes. The two young women, while narrowly drawn, ring true, and so does violent Clint.
None of these faults, if faults they are, matter much. The novel holds up because of the powerful story. To cite movies, it’s the plot of HIGH SIERRA, FIRST BLOOD, and dozens of Westerns and adventure stories. A man alone, a man on the run, a man whose time has run out. Thank you, Phillip Howerton, and thank you, Arkansas, for bringing this great old yarn back to us.