After a Summer of British Novels, a Cleansing of the Palate

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In order to help get in the mood for a fall semester in London, I’ve been reading nothing but British novels this summer. So far I’ve covered Cold Comfort Farm, The Remains of the Day, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, The Country Girls, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I chose these for no particular reason, other than that I always wanted to read them, or have been waiting to reread some of them.

There are an awful lot of manners in these books. Lot of talk of houses and buildings, but with the exception of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, not a lot of nature other than rain. All good books. Each one has something to recommend it. But I missed weather. I craved violence. After a summer of British novels, I needed a cleansing of the pallet.

I found what I was missing in Winter’s Bone, the novel that was the basis for the fine movie with Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes a few years ago. Set in the border-country hills between Missouri and Arkansas, the novel features a 16 year old protagonist, Ree Dolly, who has been abandoned by her father, a meth cook of some local fame, and an emotionally checked out mother, to try and keep her younger brothers fed and healthy despite abject poverty. The story opens when a deputy sheriff informs Ree that her father, Jessup, put up the shack and timber to cover bail, and that if he doesn’t make his court date in a week, she and her family will lose the house. Ree thinks, “The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. . . . and the boys’d have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she’d be stuck alongside them ‘til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She’d never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S.Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She’d never have only her own concerns to tote. She’d never have her own concerns.”

Ree sets off to find her father and make him show up for court, but first she has to find him, and so begins a precarious journey through the Ozark hills, looking for her father among her family and clan. Ree walks a fine line between the violence and occasional sympathy offered by her extended family. This is a culture where men talk with fists and guns and sex, and women protect their men from outsiders with questions while enduring the consequences of bad choices and the cultural imitations of their gender.

Daniel Woodrell captures Ree’s limited options from the first page:

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 halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far Creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.
Snow clods had replaced the horizon, capped the valley darkly, and chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches. Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered. The coming weather meant wash hung outside would freeze into planks, so she’d have to stretch clothesline across the kitchen above the woodstove, and the puny stack of wood split for the potbelly would not last long enough to dry much except Mom’s underthings and maybe a few T-shirts for the boys. Ree knew there was no gas for the chain saw, so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the valley and fell around her.

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And then there’s Jessup’s brother, Ree’s uncle:

Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’d three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.

After a summer of gentle British landscapes, mansions, and boarding schools, it was nice to get back to grit and violence, to literature where the land is as much a character as the people who live on it. On the plus side, Martin Amis’s London Fields is coming up on the British novel list.

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