Sunday 25 September 2016

Eoghan Harris: The educated hillbilly hero who loves Liz Bowen

Published 22/07/2012 | 05:00

DANIEL Woodrell with no close competition. That's what I told those who asked me to name my favourite crime writer after last week's column. In fact Woodrell is my favourite novelist full stop.

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Later I hope to show -- not tell -- why this is so. And why Woodrell should be given the status of honorary Irish writer. But first a short break for a brief bark about the national question.

Last week I was sandwiched between two small but perfectly formed summer schools: the John Boyle O'Reilly school at Drogheda last Saturday and the Elizabeth Bowen/William Trevor Festival in Mitchelstown this weekend.

In Drogheda I was debating with Danny Morrison. Like myself, Danny is retired but always ready to return. We were arguing about whether the Old IRA's fight for freedom was a "Patriotic War or Sectarian Strife".

The commonsense answer of course is that it was a bit of both. Most Old IRA members were motivated by patriotic ideals. But a few were sectarian bigots who used the war as a cloak to settle personal and historical scores. The panel added nothing new to this debate.

But it dealt honesty with a difficult question from the audience: would a truth commission really reveal the truth? Surprisingly I found myself in agreement with both Morrison and Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order: talk would not achieve truth.

Enter Elizabeth Bowen to explain my personal position. Speaking of the detective story she says "it works on the single and universally accepted pre-assumption that an act of violence is anti-social, and that the doer, in the name of the injured society, must be traced".

That applies to crimes like the murder of Jean McConville. But after 40 years the chances of a safe conviction are slim. Commentators should not let people forget the crime. But what is the point of Provo or UDA killers conning academics with accounts of their movements that are almost certainly self-serving?

Growing up in republican circles, I was aware my grandfather's generation lied a lot about the War of Independence. Atrocities against civilians caused amnesia. Statements to the Military History Bureau, unless supported by documentary evidence, should be read with reservation.

Brian Hanley, the historian on the panel, pointed out that the pensions files when released in another 15 years or so, may be more reliable as they required some corroboration. But they will be only marginally more reliable. Few old IRA men would deprive a former comrade of a pension because of his absence from an ambush.

Why should former Provos be any different? They have a lot more reason to lie than the Old IRA, because they carried out more atrocities against civilians. But the biggest problem is that these testimonies are being used to settle scores following the peace process.

This brings me to the testimony of the late Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes against Gerry Adams. We are asked to believe Hughes because he was dying. But as I told the Drogheda audience -- which appreciated the point -- we like our ghosts to gild our reputation beyond the grave.

Hughes was a hardened killer. Facing death he also had to face the fact that his murders had been in vain. But instead of showing remorse he sought revenge.

I believe Hughes's main aim was to damage Gerry Adams and the peace process. God knows I am no fan of Adams. But there are degrees of dark dealing. And Brendan 'The Dark' Hughes engaged with evil until the end.

* * *

Back to my worship of Daniel Woodrell. It started in 1988 when I read the first sentence of Muscle on the Wing. "Wishing to avoid any risk of a snub at the Hushed Hill Country Club the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barrelled and loaded."

After that I began to use his Bayou and Ozark mountain books as a guide to good prose in my screenwriting classes at the National Film School at the Institute of Art, Design & Technology. Back then he was like a trade secret. Today, thanks to the film Winter's Bone, Woodrell is more widely known.

Winter's Bone is a fine

film. But no camera can compete with Woodrell's description of Ree Dolly, his Ozark heroine. "Ree, brunette and 16, 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."

It's the precision of "yellowed" (not yellow) dress, the surprising adjective "abrupt" for her eyes, and the shock of her cheeks looking as if "smacked and smacked again" that makes Woodrell special. That and the loving but lethally beady eye he keeps on his mountainy men and women. Like Buddhists gone bad, they live in the now. "In the short run, the only run that mattered."

Woodrell's most recent work, Give Us a Kiss, shows him mellowing slightly -- but only to wring more black comedy from family dysfunction that starts with the opening sentence. "I had a family errand to run, that's all, but I decided to take a pistol."

Again it's not just the family as the source of sinful deeds, or the pistol produced suddenly at the end of the sentence, that makes Woodrell worth reading. It's the delinquent deception implicit in the apparently innocent "that's all".

Doyle Redmond, the chief character in Give Us A Kiss, is an educated 'hillbilly' (an intimate term like 'Paddy' which Ozarkers resent on the lips of outsiders) who deliberately damps down his vocabulary when at home. And while Doyle is a novelist he's also someone the Kansas police want to talk to.

But when Doyle holes up in a shack in the Ozarks he lovingly lays out "the books I never left behind, and made any crap hole I landed in home to me". Look at the list and you will see why Woodrell should be accorded an honorary status as an Irish writer -- or at least an Irish reader.

"There were a couple of Elizabeth Bowen novels, a quartet by Edward Lewis Wallant, one volume of Pierce Egan's Boxiana, The Williamsburg Trilogy by Daniel Fuchs, Carson McCullers's oeuvre, a stack of Twain, a batch of Erskine Caldwell's thin li'l wonders, some Liam O'Flaherty and John McGahern and Grace Paley and Faulkner, all of Chandler, and a copy of Jim Harrison's A Good Day to Die."

Doyle Redmond loves Liz Bowen. Which means that Elizabeth Bowen heads the list of Daniel Woodrell's favourite writers. Yes, yes, I know Woodrell will say he's not Doyle Redmond, but we, his loyal readers, will forgive him the little lie.

Let me do the tots on that book-list. Because this is the only national question that matters to me: how highly does Daniel Woodrell, one of the greatest prose stylists in English, rate Irish writers?

Woodrell's hero has 13 favourite writers. Counting Raymond Chandler -- a Waterford man -- we find that four of the 13 are Irish. That's 30 per cent. Thirty. Has the troika factored in those figures? And if not, why not?

Sunday Independent

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