Book Review: Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell
Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell is a Deep South crime noir with prose drunk on poetry. This book is part one of The Bayou Trilogy, and the author’s first published (1986) novel. Since its publication, Woodrell has gone on to become a highly respected, but not renowned, author. Two of his novels have been made […]
Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell is a Deep South crime noir with prose drunk on poetry. This book is part one of The Bayou Trilogy, and the author’s first published (1986) novel. Since its publication, Woodrell has gone on to become a highly respected, but not renowned, author. Two of his novels have been made into movies, one being Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), which was adapted from Woodrell’s Civil War novel Woe to Live on (1987). The other is Winter’s Bone, published in 2006 and made into a fantastic 2010 movie by the same name, about a backwater Missouri town with a rather bad inbreeding and even worse meth problem.
One of the things that attracted me to this book was the glowing review for Woodrell on The Bayou Trilogy’s cover:
“What people say about Cormac McCarthy goes double for Daniel Woodrell. Possibly more.” – New York Times
That’s a tall order, and probably one that should not have been stamped on a trilogy containing the author’s first short novel. However, the comparison to be made between McCarthy and Woodrell is an obvious one, since both are southern writers (an oddly uncommon commodity) who deal with the various grays of good and evil committed by man. But comparisons afterward stop there, at least for Under the Bright Lights. McCarthy has a much more truncated, sparse sentence structure, whereas Woodrell writes with flourish and layers his sentences with a thick Southern feel, heavy with local dialect; occasionally the narrative becomes so weighted it requires re-reading, or a quick check to Google. While that’s not a knock against the author, the reader should realize this is a very Southern book. When you’re in Woodrell’s world, you know you’ve been transplanted swimmingly close to the swamps of Louisiana.
The story takes place in the fictional parish of St. Bruno, Louisiana, a place where poverty and corruption fuel a burgeoning criminal underworld. There are two primary criminal factions from two neighborhoods in St. Bruno: French people and black people. The French occupy Frogtown, and the African Americans occupy the Pan Fry. Their respective criminals begin spilling blood, looking to gain more power and settle escalating vendettas.
Rene Shade is the story’s main character, an ex boxer, now cop, who grew up in the rough streets of Frogtown. After a young black man with a shot at becoming mayor has his brains splattered all over his television, Rene and his partner are assigned to find the culprit. Well, not exactly. The current mayor wants them to paint an obviously targeted homicide as a random break-in, thus squelching public uproar that the truth might bring.
The other protagonist is Jewel Cobb, a twenty-something redneck with an empty head, out to prove his masculinity with gunfire, tough talk, and hair gel. He’s a hillbilly bumpkin with a perfect toothpaste squeeze of hair he takes the utmost care of curling up. Jewel’s scenes become some of the most memorable in the book. He doesn’t have the worldly sense of Shade, so his worldview is quixotic and lacks the tough-as-nails cliché Shade’s perception often brings. Jewel is an idiot, and while you never like him, you enjoy watching him flop about in the world.
About a dozen characters play a main part in this ‘country noir,’ a phrase Woodrell coined. Most are forgettable. But what makes the novel good is the way in which the story is told. It’s like a 101-proof shot of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this way Comes dropped into a frothy glass of old school pulp fiction. The story isn’t what grips you; it’s the prose. There’s enough beauty in the writing that would do justice and then some to a two-hour Louisiana sunset that color-codes the sky into half the colors of spring.