You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 3)

A man standing on a ledge in a library looking for a book

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

3. Name one of your favorite books that’s not a theory book.

The cover of Tomato Red by Daniel WoodrellAsking about my favorite non-theory book is kind of like asking about my favorite child. As such, I’ll dodge that question and say that it’s a tie between all of the Harry Potter books and all of the Daniel Woodrell books. The first Woodrell book I read was Tomato Red. Next was The Death of Sweet Mister, followed by Winter’s Bone (remember that Jennifer Lawrence movie? Woodrell wrote the book), and all of the others shortly followed (most recently for me, The Maid’s Version). The Harry Potter books don’t need any sort of explanation, I suspect. But Daniel Woodrell might, and he’s well worth the introduction.
I suppose one of the reasons why I’ve got such strong feelings for Woodrell is not only because he’s an absolutely amazing writer, but because he writes largely about the region where I’m from. I grew up in the Ozarks, and although I was not a child on the verge of starvation living at the whim of my mostly-absent meth-dealing parents, when you live in the places about which Woodrell writes, these realities are never far away if you know where to look.

But I suppose that Woodrell works on me, in particular, because he makes me remember my childhood, when I was part of a professional clogging team (true story). I was a member of such a touring team for almost ten years, which meant that my summers were spent driving to bluegrass festivals and county fairs all across the Ozarks and the American south. There we would perform hot, sweaty, hour-long shows in every venue from a fairground grandstand to a repurposed basketball court. In some of these places, the only thing of incidence to happen all year long was that festival, and I wonder if the sense of claustrophobia that I get when I’m in a small rural town is from my clear memory of the way that our shows drew out absolutely everyone. I’ve joked with a friend that if I ever write a memoir, the title will be I Learned to Two-Step From a One-Armed Man. And this is true. And that’s exactly the sort of person who might appear in a Woodrell novel.

But what’s interesting about that one-armed man and my clogging team of long ago is that those folks are clearly the bourgeoisie in the settings he paints. Maybe I like him because, as someone who studies race, gender, and class, you can’t ignore these elements in Woodrell’s books. Poverty, desperation, theft, murder, drug use, and, yes, humor, permeate everything that Woodrell touches. He has been likened to Faulkner for his amazing ability to write in the dialect of his characters (which often sport a thick, Ozarkian twang). This can take a bit to get used to; I found that with Tomato Red, I had to read it out loud for a few pages until I could “hear” it in my head. In both style and content, Woodrell allows nothing to remain simple. Desperation, determination, and resilience permeate every aspect of every story, which takes the stereotype of poor whites living in destitution in their trailers on the edges of town and complicates every aspect of that image until it’s unclear who is the antagonist or protagonist, who deserves pity or justice, or whether there are any solutions at all.

That may sound particularly dark, and as I’m not someone who usually likes to read depressing stuff, I suppose I should apply another caveat here, which is that I’ve never read so much entertaining misery. There is a beautiful (and amazing) flow to the way that Woodrell writes virtually everything, even though at times some of it is like watching a trainwreck. But it’s a beautiful trainwreck, all the same.

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