I have a “thing” for maps. Somehow, this transpired while working the library stacks as a maintenance shelver in non-fiction. I know the collection quite well. I LOVE the travel section and that’s where it all started, my love of maps. Then, gradually, I made it to the third floor fiction to “maintain” the tall tales of woe, love, mystery, sci-fi and westerns. Eventually, I came across a book titled Tomato Red , written by Daniel Woodrell. TomatoRed is a countryesque, destructo whirlwind of madness ad mayhem in the sweet dirtiness of rural America. No, it isn’t lemonade on a front porch type fiction. This is dark stuff: the kind of things that haunt your dreams. Rural America is presented in a somber tone with complex characters and muddy roads that tend to lead to nowhere.
After reading this book, I was on a quest to read something by the same author. Next I read, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir . This was the first time I’d seen this latter phrase written anywhere. It’s similar to Southern Gothic, but less supernatural, perhaps? I think that country noir involves a grit of sorts, an out of the thick woods, molasses-stickiness that Daniel Woodrell has fine tuned, beautifully. So what is country noir? Woodrell says, “It''s just a noir story set in the country, instead of in the city. It''s dark and the themes are darker. The author says he made up the term so he wouldn''t be called a mystery writer.” (From The Wall Street Journal Online, Jeffrey Trachtenberg: “The Writer’s Blog”) In my literary investigations, I often found country noir and southern gothic interchangeable.
But, it’s geography that makes the difference.
Otherwise, is there a style difference between a Country Noir and Southern Gothic? Maybe so or maybe not: The best description I found for southern gothic is from Tennessee Williams: “Southern Gothic is a style that captured an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." Furthermore, southern gothic designates “the American south” as the standard setting. The geography of the Ozarks is the setting for all of Daniel Woodrell’s fiction. Interestingly enough, another one of my favorite writer’s, Cormac McCarthy, is considered southern gothic. No Country for Old Men has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. And yet, Cormac’s first book, The Orchard Keeper , is very similar in style to Daniel Woodrell’s. (Vice versa) This setting is in Tennessee and shares the same sort of Appalachia/Ozark elements found in both Give Us a Kiss and Tomato Red . I find it fascinating how a writer’s style can redevelop itself over time. (It all depends on where you’re from if you consider Texas part of the south or not.) Guess it matters which side of the map you’re gazing upon?