Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:
I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face
Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):
This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
she slips a step and then jumps.
Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”
Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.
As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:
“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.
Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status.
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.
Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.
Catching Fire, the follow-up to Hunger Games, opens this Friday, and the future of teen fantasy film may depend on its success. When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tanked at the box office in August, critics rejoiced over the apparent death of the genre. A few months earlier in March, The Host had also flopped, winning the distinction of being the last film Roger Ebert ever panned. BuzzFeed writer Jordan Zakarin concluded that the “tween vampire jugular is tapped.” In the Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo suggested that teenage girls nursed on Twilight had finally seen through the hackneyed “Chosen One” story trope, a plot-line that has held its own since the Book of Esther. Writing more pragmatically in Forbes, Scott Mendelson blamed City of Bones’s floundering on bad marketing.
Despite this failure, the actual book by Cassandra Clare was a roaring success, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. Though the teen fantasy craze may be on the downslope, it is not quite dead; rather, the supernatural romances of Twilight and its ilk have yielded to the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. The first film adaptation grossed $691 million last year, and with a fresh crop of middle-schoolers looking for signposts to their own significance, the second installment’s curtain raise is likely to be well-attended.
Though publishers distinguish between supernatural, paranormal romance, and dystopia, these genres all involve an element of fantasy. HarperCollins editor Kari Sutherland told me that since 2010 the company has tripled its number of such titles, which include the wildly successful Divergent and Delirium series. Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, said these books have played an “intrinsic” role in the increase of titles it’s sold in the past five years. Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice. But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?
Before the American Civil War, the idea of writing books for teenagers didn’t cross the minds of American publishers. It was only in the 1860s that popular novels for girls like the Elsie Dinsmore series appeared, featuring saintly, passive heroines whose lives revolved around the home. But a demand also grew for blood-and-thunder romances that expressed an underlying feminine ennui as much as they negatively implicated the women reading them. The heroines of these tales were usually embroiled in a lurid affair between suitors or some other form of love-gone-awry that threatened their virginity.
These women — the evolutionary ancestors of today’s high-grossing teen heroines — were seen to confirm upper class assumptions about the promiscuity of the lower class. Louisa May Alcott’s first story, a psycho-thriller novella called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, followed a jilted woman’s quest for revenge against a lover who leaves her for a wealthy woman. In 1862, after it was published under the pen name of A. M. Barnard, Alcott wrote to her friend Alf Whitman: “I get ten dollars a page for my foolish little story…money is the end & aim of my mercenary existence I scribble away.” Even after she became a famous writer, Alcott continued churning out pulp fiction for the tabloids. “Perilous Play” of 1869 ends memorably with its heroine exclaiming, “Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!”
But squeaky-clean domestic romances remained the more socially acceptable reading choice until the turn of the century, when publishers like The Henry Altemus Company concluded that “girls as well as boys love adventure.” The Stratemeyer Syndicate published 85 new girls’ series between 1910 and 1920 starring young women who played basketball, drove cars, helped the poor, solved mysteries, and even made movies. Most of all, they went to college. The historian Jane S. Smith has noted that less than four percent of college-aged American girls attended university in 1910, “but it was a rare heroine of fiction who did not take a room on the campus green, where she studied biology and Latin, drank cocoa with her kimono-clad chums and upheld the school traditions with moist-eyed fervor.”
These books captured the spirit of the Suffragettes, who in 1913 marched on the Washington Mall to demand women’s equality. The popular Ruth Fielding Series (1913-1934) was about an orphan living with a mean uncle who disapproves of her desire for a future outside the home. Smart and ambitious, Ruth works hard in school, goes to college, wins a film-writing contest and even starts her own production company. In book #15, Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound (1919), the narrator explains, “Marriage was something very far ahead in the future, if Ruth … thought of it at all.” When Ruth’s boyfriend Tom proposes in book #19, Ruth Fielding on the St. Lawrence (1922), she feels that “to do as Tom wished would utterly spoil the career on which she had now entered so successfully. Tom, like most young men in love, considered that a girl’s only career should be a husband and a home…she wanted to live her own life.”
It’s ironic, as Smith has noted, that bettering one’s self through college or career fell out of focus in teen fiction not long after women got the vote. By the 1980s, suburban dramas in the vein of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitter’s Club predominantly reigned.
One night in 2003, Stephenie Meyer had a dream about vampires and woke up the next morning to begin writing the first Twilight book, a nearly 500-page tome. Within five years the first Twilight film appeared, launching a franchise, and by extension, a phenomenon. Though girls devoured the series in cinematic and print form (I once saw a first edition at Half-Price Books valued at $600), critics spared no kindness on its 17-year-old heroine, “Bella” Swan:
“Neither [Edward or Bella] has much personality to speak of.”
“[Bella] is not only hard to identify with but positively horrifying…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her…young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.”
— National Review
“…the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”
— Washington Post
And a final, damning rebuke:
“You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
— The Guardian
Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care. After the first Twilight film, Bella (Kristin Stewart) became a de facto role model for young women — the instantaneous object of their envy, praise, and imitation. The internet was rife with articles and YouTube videos instructing girls how to dress like Bella, apply their makeup like Bella, and, most frighteningly, act like Bella. In one video, a girl earnestly advised viewers to be “clumsy and accident-prone.” Clothing brand BB Dakota even replicated for mass production the jacket Bella wore in the film. Bella singlehandedly set the stage for an army of similar teen heroines that came after her — ones who share more in common with Alcott’s Pauline or even Elsie Dinsmore than Ruth Fielding. In fact, the sting of Twilight intensifies when one compares the book to Girl of the Limberlost (1908), a young adult novel authored by Gene Stratton-Porter and published a full hundred years before Twilight premiered in theaters.
Both Elnora Comstock, author Gene Stratton-Porter’s 16-year-old heroine, and Bella Swan are Cinderella archetypes. Twilight opens when Bella moves to the leafy town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad, since her mom is preoccupied doting on a boyfriend. Elnora’s father is dead, and she lives in rural Indiana with her mother, a grief-stricken tyrant. Each, in their own ways, are loners. Though friends flock around Bella at school, she tells the reader, “I didn’t relate well to people my age… Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” While Bella may feel like an outsider, Elnora is one. Snubbed for her old-fashioned clothes, she becomes a pariah on her first day of high school and eats her lunch alone. Both girls also spend their time wandering the woods near their homes. Bella’s activities in the lush Northwest forest involve chasing around her love interest, a vampire named Edward Cullen (or more often, joyriding on his back). Elnora works quietly in the swampy Limberlost, where her own father drowned, collecting rare moths to sell so she can buy schoolbooks and save money for college.
But at the heart of Twilight lies something else almost more sinister than its treatment of romance. The more Bella submits to Edward’s charms, the closer she gets to the end of her human life and the beginning of her undead one. Coupled with her disinterest in the outside world, her desire for Edward becomes a death wish — fulfilled when she is finally bitten by him and becomes herself a vampire. If this sounds twisted, remember that it’s the ending that most Twilight readers hoped for. This hunger for death is countered in Limberlost not only by Elnora’s resilience against life’s blows but also by the forest’s own struggle to survive industrialization. Like Edward’s deadly effect on Bella, Elnora’s foraging in the Limberlost threatens it. A family friend warns her, “Each year you will find less in the swamp, and things everywhere will be scarcer.” By the time she graduates high school, the forest is not what it used to be. Still, Mrs. Comstock, who owns a large swath of the land, refuses to sell it to developers. Life pushes back against destruction for the conservation of a fragile but crucial habitat.
To a modern reader, Limberlost is sentimental, almost saccharine, and though it encourages independence it ultimately bows to the conventions of its era when, towards the end, Elnora reveals her perception of being a wife: “I understood that to mean that he desired me to keep him a clean house, serve him digestible food, mother his children, and give him loving, sympathy, and tenderness,” she says. But in a time when few women went to college, Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?
The author Lauren Oliver credited her inspiration for the dystopian teen romance Delirium to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote that all great books were about love and death. Throughout literary history, these twin subjects have been the core of many great novels (Anna Karenina) as well as many bad ones. As Twilight demonstrated, teen fantasy authors have taken up these themes with a special fervor, but no one has handled them as ruthlessly as Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games Trilogy.
Writing in Salon, critic Laura Miller has praised Katniss Everdeen, Collins’s strong-willed 16-year-old heroine, as an improvement on Bella:
Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob… Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister.
Indeed, Katniss has far more in common with Elnora. She also spends her days in a forest, hunting not moths but meat to sell on the black market. The resemblance between the two is uncanny. Like Elnora’s father, Katniss’s father is dead and her mother also emotionally invalid; just as Elnora inherits her father’s grace with the violin, Katniss has her father’s rich talent for song. Both characters struggle to survive in a dangerous environment. Thieves have overrun Elnora’s forest and warn her to keep out; her father’s bones, we are told, rest in the swampy pool bottom where he drowned. Yet somehow the Limberlost’s dangers don’t overwhelm her. Katniss’s post-apocalyptic home of Panem terrorizes her. Food is scarce; mutant birds and insects threaten; and hunting is a crime penalized by death As punishment for a past rebellion, each of the nation’s 12 districts sacrifices two “tributes” to compete in an annual reality show where the winner is the last one alive.
Here, dystopia reaches into every corner of life — even love. Along with a boy named Peeta, Katniss represents her district in the 74th annual games. Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people. In chapter 10, Peeta — who faces the same pressures as Katniss — tells her that his goal is to stay true to himself, even until death: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games… Don’t you see?” Katniss replies, “A little… but who cares, Peeta?”
Dystopian novels are provocative avenues through which readers can explore and even question their civic relationship to government, but Collins’s series fosters an especially grotesque worldview. The words “dead,” “dying,” and “death” appear more than 300 times in the series. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are again chosen to compete in a special edition of the bloodbath. When Katniss is wounded, the authorities nurse her to life because a quiet, private passing would be a loss for them. Later, Katniss resolves to kill Peeta “before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death.” As Mockingjay opens, she stumbles through the bombed-out landscape of District 12, tripping on human skulls and breathing in the ashes of the dead. When the couple finally defeat the Capitol, their victory feels pyrrhic at best. With most of their families dead (and Katniss’s initial sacrificing of herself for her sister rendered pointless), they marry, and nightmares haunt them always. Readers are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves. They may wonder: if the world really is that hopeless, what’s the point of striving for anything at all?
In comparison to Collins’s dark tale, Daniel Woodrell’s noiresque Winter’s Bone — whose 2010 film version also starred Jennifer Lawrence — seems strangely light. The fact that the novel, published in 2006, was not marketed to teenage girls is almost — but not quite — surprising. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, shares many similarities to Bella, Katniss, and Elnora. Living in the Ozark woods and hunting squirrels to feed her family, she also searches for her father, a meth cook who has gone missing. If he doesn’t turn up for his court date, her mother and siblings will be forced out of their home. There is no romance here; Ree mostly dreams of leaving the Ozarks and joining the Army. But in the end, she preserves her family home by confronting her father’s death in its most horrifying physical form. When the film version came out in 2010, David Edelstein noted in New York Magazine, “For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer…” New Yorker critic David Denby called Winter’s Bone “one of the greatest feminist works in film.”
Literature may not be about easy answers, but some of the best books bring some level of clarity to the reader within their nuanced explorations of the world — even if that clarity means that they find the answers are grayer than they thought. The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.
The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow. Though many teen readers lead average, suburban lives, they live in an information age rife with anxiety. Their social worlds, artificially reorganized online through social media, are open to endless bullying. Threats of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and domestic terrorism loop continuously on the nightly news. AMC — who owned the venue in which the Aurora shooting occurred and in whose franchises many fans will line up to see Catching Fire’s premiere — now runs a cautionary commercial about how to act in the case of such a catastrophe. In the midst of these uncertainties, let alone the hormonal depression from which many already suffer, the fashion and beauty industries fuel the pressure to look and act perfect.
In her article, Dalfonzo wrote, “It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.” But kids don’t just want to watch kids being kids. They want to step into the shoes of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.
Yet, in the famous words of Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.
Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell has a new book out, and to mark the occasion, he talks with Dwyer Murphy of Guernica about his upcoming book tour, Southern poverty and the rejections Winter’s Bone received. Sample quote: “When my family started doing better and my parents encouraged my brothers and me to succeed beyond them, we started asking why our parents were telling us to strive so hard to live in these neighborhoods full of people they clearly resented—and feared too, I think.”
Daniel Woodrell was so busy dodging bill collectors that he almost missed a telegram from an agent interested in his first novel, Under the Bright Lights. He discusses his writing career, the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone, and how he’s used the same coffee mug since 1974 for The Daily Beast’s “How I Write” series.
Only five new episodes remain in AMC’s high-octane drama about a milquetoast family man who transforms himself into a cunning drug kingpin. Within the next two months, we can expect to see Walter White’s reckoning, whether through spectacular downfall or a final ascension to cartel royalty. Blood will spill and secrets will be revealed. Breaking Bad promises us the rush and pulse of the best Shakespeare dramas, cinematically captured in the saturated blues and bleached out beiges that signify the Southwestern landscape.
One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is its richly layered storylines. There are worlds and worlds behind Walter White’s character arc. The story of the land and people of Northern New Mexico alone could be its own fascinating spinoff of Breaking Bad. Not to mention the history of The Drug War, cartels, and race relations in the borderlands.
The books on this list range from the personal to the mythological to the journalistic, and some intertwine all three. They all depict a world of stark contrasts. There is danger here. There are hardscrabble heroes and self-made gods dripping with hubris. Each book is infused with the poetry of landscape, in which humans like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman try to craft their own story with what their realities have handed them.
Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West by Ruben Martinez: Martinez deftly blends memoir and reportage, giving us an essential new way of thinking about and seeing the West. He goes into the complicated multiracial history of Northern New Mexico and brings the landscape and the people into stark relief as he tells his own story of settling there; he is part native, part interloper, both an advocate and gentrifier. It is from this ambiguous identity that he feels compelled to research the painful and fascinating history of the West, both its economic reality and its role in the Great American Imagination. It’s a perfect book to read in tandem with Breaking Bad, to get an intimate sense of the place where Vince Gilligan’s drama unfolds.
Alburquerque: A Novel by Rudolfo Anaya: World Literature Today described Anaya’s famous novel as “a quest for knowledge… a novel about many cultures intersecting at an urban, power-, and politics-filled crossroads, represented by a powerful white businessman.” A description that could easily apply to Breaking Bad. Anaya is often described as the father of Chicano literature and his novels are richly woven tapestries of memorable characters and an evocative sense of place.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Early on in the show, there were some comparisons of Skyler to Lady MacBeth. I disagree. She may have eventually accepted her role as accomplice and money launderer, but she began as the Daisy to Walt’s Gatsby. She was the pure (but greedy) representation of love and family that Walt ironically corrupted himself to protect and secure. There are plenty of places where Breaking Bad departs from Gatsby, but they share the story of an American nobody’s contraband-funded rise to infamy and inevitable tragic end.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell: The book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film, Daniel Woodrell’s novel is populated with the same kind of down-on-their-luck folks who make do with what they can in a harsh ecology, who rally around their own kind and protect family until the bitter end. Even if that means cooking and dealing meth.
To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by John Gibler: The cartel murders in Breaking Bad are highly dramatized and sensationalized. John Gibler’s clear-eyed, well-researched reports remove many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexico’s multi-billion dollar drug war, and will give the reader blood-curdling facts about the real Tuco Salamancas and Gus Frings and their impoverished, routinely executed employees. This highly praised book promises to sadden and enrage, and possibly to change your thinking about the War on Drugs.
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca: New Mexico’s own American Book Award Winner spent six years of his early life in prison for selling drugs as a homeless youth. This memoir chronicles his life before, during, and after his time served. It’s a story of hope and remaking. Think of it as the photo-negative of Walter White’s arc. Far from the relative comfort of the White household, Baca began his life abandoned and destitute. He honestly writes of transforming himself in spite of desperate adversity, and of working for the nourishment and empowerment of the underserved communities around him.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko: Tucson has a similar history to that of Albuquerque – a modest desert metropolis that means many things to many people: colonized sacred land, dangerous, heavily policed border town, bohemian enclave, nexus of social ills. Both towns are weird clashing intersections of demographics and material interests; from the fancy-free cultural events of the college town to the radical activism of border justice advocates to the sleepy insularity of hippie-crystal business ownership. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel centers on a veteran of the drug trade who sees the ghosts of colonialism in present day Arizona. Her story is a terrifying shadow history of the world that allowed someone like Walter White to exist.
When I was twelve, my mother, sister, and I took an overnight train to Kansas City, where my great-aunt met and drove us several hours south. Hovering near the border of Missouri and Arkansas, we were in the heart of the Ozarks. Here’s what I remember about them. My family’s private cemetery, near the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather attended and the cabin with a shotgun hole in the roof. The somewhat sad sights of Branson, and an evening trip to see the Osmond Brothers. Lush greenery. The wide expanse of the White River seen from my great-aunt’s home.
Judging from Daniel Woodrell’s fiction, there’s a lot I missed. It would seem, for example, that the Ozarks are no place for people of moderate appetites and emotions. In Woodrell’s superb new collection, The Outlaw Album, characters are fueled by desperation, anger, and (one suspects) a sense of humor either incomparably keen or completely nonexistent. How else could you explain the book’s first sentence, found in a story called “The Echo of Neighborly Bones”?: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” After burying his neighbor in a makeshift grave, this Boshell makes a habit of stopping by whenever he’s feeling blue. Nothing takes the edge off a rough day, or soothes the memory of his wife’s tears, as well as going at the rotting corpse with a heavy stone or a blunt hatchet.
When we eventually learn the reason for the murder — the neighbor killed Boshell’s dog — wit and pathos elide. We’ve anticipated an act of tremendous brutality, and what we find seems relatively petty. But small slights are deeply felt in Woodrell country. They carry life or death stakes. Why not shoot the neighbor? What could be crueler, really, than targeting a childless couple’s beloved pet? In another story, an outsider builds a house directly in the line of sight between a dying man’s window and his cherished river. His son restores the vista as quickly and effectively as he can—with fire—in his father’s final days. As in Woodrell’s earlier novel Winter’s Bone, The Outlaw Album’s hills are filled with methheads and gunfire, but unkindness proves no less explosive a presence.
That’s not to say darker works don’t abound. Woodrell’s characters are capable of terrible things. A driver accelerates at a hitchhiker and sends his car plummeting into a ditch. A Civil War veteran carves driftwood, avoiding both confrontation with and atonement for the murders he committed against civilians. These acts of unmerited violence are sometimes sudden, sometimes forgotten, always contained within a specific moment in time. When the deed is justified, though, it often haunts the perpetrator. When a man wakes up to a naked, growling figure towering over his bed, he reaches for a nearby knife. In the light, the intruder is revealed to be a troubled Iraq veteran, and his killer doubts his actions. He spends nights walking circuits around the house. He becomes a near-pariah in town. And he has one notably awkward, sad conversation with the dead man’s parents outside a diner.
Even amidst his characters’ wildest thoughts and most profound transgressions, however, Woodrell’s prose winks slyly at us. In one of the book’s finest stories, a girl attacks her rapist uncle with a pickaxe, leaving him in a vegetable state. She’s left to care for him while her mother works, and enjoys inflicting small cruelties on her former tormentor. But soon things begin to change. He follows people with his eyes. Once he swats a fly. It’s all too much. The girl sets out to finish the task she started, wheeling him up to a local bridge.
“I’d been making him well,” she thinks, “now I needed to make him right.” Ruefully, savagely, joyfully, she laments in the story’s final line, “My baby ain’t meant for this world.” The character is a triumph. She takes pleasure in administering justice, bringing wit to the unspeakable and a gritty pragmatism to morality. In a book full of memorable characters, this nameless narrator stands out as an unreservedly sharp and funny presence.
All this amounts to one of the best evocations of rural life that I’ve read in years. Woodrell’s characters have a hard time of it, and wealth and education don’t help much. There’s a whole world contained within his Ozarks — several veterans, rich summer-homers, a damaged girl with a mysterious past, an inner-city father whose son is in prison, a nostalgic divorcé from the city — and its dangers affect all of them indiscriminately. Slim and utterly delicious, The Outlaw Album is a quick read and will leave you asking why this is Woodrell’s first collection of stories. Few authors have such a sure and deft hand with reveals. Even fewer combine humor and desperation so effectively.
It becomes clear at a certain point, though, that he was not quite content to deliver a collection of genre pieces, however superlative. There are unexpected moments. “The body fell within a shout of a house that still stands,” begins a story called “The Horse in Our History.” “A house shown up rudely in morning brightness, a dull small box gone shabby along the roof edge, with tar shingles hanging frayed over a gutter that has parted from the eaves and rolled under like a slackened lip.” While Woodrell’s writing is often beautiful — sparse construction and sudden, lush images feature prominently — this passage falls in a different register. It immediately sounds like someone else. I couldn’t place it until I got to the next paragraph: “The body fell within a shout, and surely those in the house must have heard something.” The repetition, the narrative disguised as speculation: Woodrell’s doing Faulkner here and he’s doing it well. Even the somewhat vague but insistent impression of alienness left by the first few sentences testifies to the success of his imitation.
But why do it? It’s a virtuoso performance and a fine story, but Woodrell’s voice is confident and distinct through The Outlaw Album. There seems to be little impetus for Faulknerian digressions. But while The Outlaw Album could stand alone, I think perhaps Woodrell wants you to compare it to the work of the masters. His ventriloquism does more than show off his ability. It demonstrates the power of his own unique voice. It throws into relief the expansiveness and clarity of the place he’s imagined, as well-defined as Faulkner’s own Yoknapatawpha County. It’s the request to be admitted to the pantheon, and with The Outlaw Album as evidence, it’s none too soon.
In a recent Publisher’s Weekly interview Alan Heathcock, author of the debut story collection Volt, stated, “I thought long and hard about pursuing a career as a police officer, and separately as a minister. The police officer in me told me I was too blunt/curt to be an effective minister, and the minister in me told me I was too forgiving to be an effective police officer. I became a writer, in part, because it was the only significant profession that allowed both sides of my personality to exist and be expressed.”
This explains a lot, as much about this Chicago native’s stories get their initial thrust from violent acts, both accidental and murderous, and soon involve pastors and the police, the pastors helping victims to find peace, the law officers often instilling a sense of justice that goes far beyond “blunt.”
Volt, set primarily in the fictional Midwest town of Krafton and dipping into different decades of the 20th century, evokes Tim Gautreaux’s Same Place, Same Things, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, Breece D’J Pancake’s Stories, and at times Eudora Welty and Annie Proulx. Raw, emotional, and provocative stories grounded in prose that is both clear and poetic, with plots that sweep toward the biblical.
Much has been made of the violence in Volt, and surely Alan Heathcock knows violence well. But what he knows better is that violence, even murder, is not the greatest wrong one can commit. The wrongs that follow the violence disturb and instruct in ways violence alone cannot. Heathcock also understands, as do his characters, that violence creates a rift that separates one’s past life from one’s future life; one’s previous self from a new self yet to be formed.
“The Staying Freight” sets the tone when Winslow, a farmer who is “thirty-eight and well respected”, accidentally kills his son with his plow. The simplicity and acuity with which the act is captured stops one cold. “Winslow simply didn’t see the boy running across the field. [He]… whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.” The reader’s shock is soon replaced by a gnawing longing to undo what cannot be undone.
It’s how Winslow responds that concerns Heathcock and grips the reader. Winslow later accidentally harms his wife then leaves the house for, as he writes in a note, “…a walk. Be back soon.” The “walk” turns into a flight from home as he cannot bear to return, thinking, “Now and forever I will be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife.” But those were accidents. The greater wrong is that he makes the choice to keep venturing farther from his wife with each new step, leaving her alone in her own grief. What befalls Winslow is a tale of near fable proportions, grounded in a realism that keeps you with Winslow, hoping he makes it home.
In one story an act of murder by tire iron pales beside the murderer’s subsequent action to involve his son in the grotesque cover up. In another story, the violence glimpsed at the end is not as villainous as the lengths a young soldier on furlough goes to manipulate a friend into exacting that violence and to trick a girl into witnessing it.
But if Volt is rife with violence and its aftermath, it is tempered with quiet reflective moments, and a pair of subtler stories where violence is in the background or rises to no greater offense than a quiet boy punching another boy for being called a queer. There is the backdrop of a gorgeous yet harsh natural world, where blue skies quickly turn cloudy and rains fall so hard that floods change the course of lives. The violence is also balanced against other characters lucky enough to have escaped violence; folks such as the pastors and shop owners and farmers who live within the law and long for order, understanding, faith, and community.
In “The Daughter”, a woman named Miriam loses her elderly mother to violence during the commission of another crime. Afterward, Miriam, who lives alone on a farm, has a maze created in her corn field and spends her time apart from the others in town as she has “an unsettled yearning to be apart from all things human.” When her college-age daughter returns home to care for her, the story takes as many strange twists as the maze itself and you wonder which of the two women the daughter of the title is. If we can glean anything from these stunning stories it is that each of us is a daughter or son, father or mother, brother or sister. None of us is apart from the other. When a pastor says to Miriam, “You’re not alone,” Miriam insists “Sometimes you are.” But the pastor gets the last word: “That’s not true. Not ever.” It is when we behave as though we are alone that the trouble starts. And once it starts, it is without end as it echoes in our bones the rest of our days.
Heathcock understands this. To understand is one thing, to write such unflinching and harrowing stories about it with such grace and empathy is another. These are truly singular, fully American stories; about violence, yes, but more so in the end about faith, forgiveness, and community. About life. Not death. Written whole by a gifted writer.
Richard Lange is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of stories Dead Boys. He lives in Los Angeles. Read more about him at www.richlange.comMy favorite book of the year was Fat City, by Leonard Gardner. It’s a novel about a couple of small-time boxers in Stockton, CA in the late ’50s. We follow these fighters as they train in ratty gyms, drink in skid row bars, chase women they don’t love, and work through their hangovers in dusty onion fields. Gardener finds harsh beauty in the bleakness and constructs sad poems out of broken dreams. These men want so much and get so little, and all of a sudden, BAM, you’re sitting there trying to read with tears in your eyes.Another book I liked was Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s dad has jumped bail on a meth charge, and it’s up to Ree to care for her two younger brothers and overmedicated mom. Her quest to track down her father before the bond company snatches the family’s house puts her in conflict with an unsavory branch of her extended clan and leads to some harrowing scrapes. You’ll shiver during Woodrell’s descriptions of the icy Ozarks, flinch at the sudden violence and come to love the indomitable Ree. It’s a simple tale made momentous by Woodrell’s quiet insistence that these poor folks and their hardscrabble lives deserve our respectful attention. I have to put in an Elmore Leonard, too, The Switch, from 1978. A kidnapping plot spins out of control in a shaky moral landscape where everybody’s guilty of something. I’m a fool for Leonard’s casual yet tightly controlled style and peerless dialogue. There’s also a lot of humor here, as he skewers the ’70s suburban country club lifestyle and makes sure that all the bad guys (and girls) get what’s coming to them.More from A Year in Reading 2007