"American Salvage," by Bonnie Jo Campbell, is one of Gilmore's favorite redneck noir novels.

by Hugh Gilmore

When you search for books online, either to purchase or simply to research an author, you inevitably run into the “lumping” problem. Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other Internet giants use sophisticated computer programs to say, in effect, “If you liked that book, you’ll probably also like this one too.” They’re suggesting that these other books are substantially similar to what you sought.

I must admit these suggestions are often useful and lead me to authors I’d not known about – but sometimes the similarity they cite is superficial and misleading. That’s “the lumping problem.”

For example, after I read my first Chris Offutt book (“Kentucky Straight”), I started looking for more titles by him. That was easy enough. He’s published five books since 1992, a small enough output to track them all down easily. When I finished reading all of him, I wished there were more books of that kind.

That’s an impossibility, though. If you enjoy Hemingway or Fitzgerald, how do you find other writers of the “same kind”? Really good writers have no peers, no generic substitutes.

What can be substituted, perhaps, is the genre or setting – maybe even a similarity of plot. That’s certainly true of much genre fiction: mysteries, romance, sci-fi, thrillers, and so on. In the case of Chris Offutt, my hunger for more led me to consider Amazon.com’s and Wikipedia’s suggestions that, if I liked Chris Offutt, I’d like the following: Daniel Woodrell of the Missouri Ozarks, Bonnie Jo Campbell of Michigan, Pinckney Benedict of West Virginia, Larry Brown of Mississippi, Frank Bill of Southern Indiana, Donald Ray Pollock of Ohio, and a bunch of other writers scattered from California to Maine, Florida to Washington state.

All of these writers grew up in rural America, mostly working class, had held menial jobs, knew farm and country life, hunting and fishing, and “good ole boy” culture. They also share a common concern with the problems faced by people who want to hold on to traditions and traditional values when faced by the crushing onslaught of modern American culture.

Unfortunately for them, most of the characters in their books live on the edge of poverty. The alternative “underground” economy abides in plenty of inventive ways. That includes brushes with the law – to put it mildly.

Because they are not outsiders looking in, all these writers have a native speaker’s bilingualism. They can write standard American English, but, when they need to, they also write in local speech that will make your jaw drop with admiration for its uncanny aptness. Most entertaining.

All of these authors are labeled as “country noir” writers. This cowboy columnist disagrees with that classification and needs to separate the herd a bit. I thought it was a disservice to slap that “noir” label on some of them. For convenience, I’ll call the ones I discuss below: Writers vs. Noir Writers.

Notice I’m avoiding saying “regional” writers, which is a damning label used to diminish the life and work of everyone outside New York, London, or Ancient Alexandria. Many critics assume that a life lived in a rural area, concerned with small town comings and goings, is a life of no consequence, one too colored by local customs and petty concerns to be of interest to the sophisticated reader. You know – petty, third-rate regional writers, like Jane Austen, or Anthony Trollope, or Samuel L. Clemens.

Let’s start with the “noir” writers. Using noir to mean a crime-centered book, told from the point of view of the victim, the criminal, or someone falsely accused, I’d have to put Daniel Woodrell at the top of the list. His books are exciting, nasty, violent, incredibly suspenseful and peopled with fascinating characters.

The novel “Winter’s Bone” (2006) is twice as tense as the recently released good movie made from it. Woodrell is credited with coining the term “country noir” (especially his novel, “Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir.” 1996). Woodrell’s novels might be called “outlaw fiction,” centering as they do on crime, criminals and violence. His “Woe to Live On,” (1996), was made into the confusing and artificial Quantrill’s Raiders film, “Ride with the Devil.”

Another good noir writer is Donald Ray Pollock, who worked as a laborer and truck driver until the age of 50 and then enrolled in the Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University. In 2008 he published “Knockemstiff, Ohio” to great acclaim and recently followed that up with “The Devil All the Time” (2011), one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten books of the year. Both of these books easily fit any definition of “noir.” The latter book is not for those squeamish about violence. I’m one of them, but I nonetheless enjoy Pollock’s writings because he’s honest, fearless, and interesting.

I mention this next writer, Frank Bill, with reluctance. His “Crimes of Southern Indiana” (2011) is the epitome of the kick-in-the-door-and-shotgun-‘em-all type of pulp fiction. Extremely violent, tough and nasty. I enjoyed two aspects of his writing. First, I was fascinated by the depiction of a backwoods criminal culture where I don’t think I’ll be knocking on anyone’s door soon seeking a lemon twist for my martini.

And nearly all the stories are revenge stories, so once the victim has been pulped and the avengers go out looking to rebalance the justice scales, I couldn’t help rooting for the bad guy to do in the badder guy. If I need say more, researching this writer led me to another genre he’s semi-associated with: “Thug Lit.” Enough about that.

The rest of the writers I started reading for this series are not, in my opinion, genre writers. Like Chris Offutt and Pinckney Benedict, they’re excellent fiction writers who live and work in a quieter part of the world. They are every bit as accomplished and artistic as the urban writers who top the best-seller lists. I believe big city critics (and American book clubs) are prejudiced against taking the Weltschmerz of the American working classes seriously. Maybe “prejudiced” is too strong, and I should say “can’t relate to.” But isn’t that what reading and learning are about: coming to understand our common humanity?

My favorite among the women on my list is Bonnie Jo Campbell of Michigan. She’s been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her short story collection “American Salvage” from 2009. She’s also written several novels. She writes about men and women in an engaging, honest, intelligent and witty way. And one story in “American Salvage,” about going to a creepy farm to buy a pig from some unendurably ominous people, still has me cringing.

I must conclude with Larry Brown, from near Oxford, Mississippi. He was, among many other things – including being a soldier in Vietnam – a fireman for 14 years before he dared to devote himself to writing full time. He managed to write 10 books, win a lot of awards, and have “Big Bad Love” (1990) made into a movie before he died in 2004. He writes with a charming and disarming honesty and sense of humor. His books are wise, gritty and touching. He seemed to be such a genuine, likeable, brave and unpretentious man that I always pick up his books with the affection I’d feel for an old friend.

Drop me a line if you feel like it at hughmore@yahoo.com. My recent books, “Malcolm’s Wine” and “Scenes from a Bookshop,” are available through Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.

  • Lorraine k. Vail

    thanks for this great review of rural lit. I knew some but added many to my summer reading list. One author I enjoyed that you did not mention, Breece D’J Pancake. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Hugh Gilmore

      Lorraine: Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad you liked the series. I had an intense, enjoyable time researching it. I’ll be very glad to give Breece D’J Pancake a try. Please let me know what else you’re reading and any suggestions you have.

      Hugh Gilmore

  • Bonnie Jo Campbell

    Gosh, thanks, Hugh, for mentioning American Salvage in such a generous way in your smart article here. Very interesting distinctions you’re making among the the rural writers Best wishes for your own writing! Bonnie

    • Hugh Gilmore

      Bonnie, my editor alerted me to your comment and I goosebumped. Love your writing. That column was the tailpiece of a five-part series instigated by my friend John O”Brien of West Virginia (he wrote “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia”) He called Chris Offutt “country gothic,” a label I objected to. So I set off to read a lot and the path led to you, of course. Our paper’s website archives has all five articles. As does my blogsite “Enemiesofreading.blogspot.com.”

      As for my own writing, I had a piece of good luck this week:

      http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/20120509_Philly_author_Hugh_Gilmore_goes_it_alone_as_publisher__too.html

      Thanks for taking the time, Bonnie.

      Hugh Gilmore

  • chrislatray

    Hugh, great little essay, and I’m right with you when it comes to Bonnie Jo’s writing. It doesn’t hurt that she’s such a sweetheart either.

    I’ve been reading a lot of this stuff this year; at the start of the year I decided that, in order to get through the anthologies and collections I’d accumulated, I’d read a story or two every day. I’ve read Pollock, Woodrell, Bill, Benedict, etc. as part of this. A guy who also writes along these lines (which I’ve usually referred to as Rural Noir myself) is Alan Heathcock. If you haven’t read his collection, VOLT, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s the best collection I’ve read since AMERICAN SALVAGE, really.

  • Hugh Gilmore

    Chris, thanks. I ordered the Alan Heathcock and am really looking forward to it. “American Salvage” has a hot cover, but the stories are much better. I love Bonnie Jo’s take on the eternal war.
    You may or may not know that this particular essay was the conclusion of a five-part discussion.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Hugh Gilmore

  • Glenn Reeves

    This is a group of writers I like: Larry Brown, Bonnie Jo, Woodrell, Bill and Pollock. I’m going to check out Offutt and Benedict on your say-so. Thanks

  • Paulettelivers

    Add William Gay to your list, Hugh. (And some day soon I hope, me Paulette Livers.) Thanks for the articles. Bonnie’s a friendof mine, and what a talent.