Give Us A Kiss by Daniel Woodrell
Setting: Ozark Mountains, USA
Daniel Woodrell labels his books as country noir. His novels take place out in the backcountry, in the heart of the Ozark mountains that’s geographically located between Missouri and Arkansas and extends further out to southeastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. I’ve read that most of his stories tend to take place in the Missouri Ozarks. This one is set in the fictional town of West Table, Mo– twenty miles north of the Arkansas line, the “bulls-eye heart of the Ozarks.”
GIVE US A KISS introduces Doyle Redmond. He’s a ex-Marine and a published, unknown writer who comes from a family of outlaws. The story is told from his first person pov and is set somewhere around the 1980′s. Kansas lawmen with warrant in hand have been visiting the Redmonds daily, asking for the whereabouts of their son, Smoke. They’ve dispatched Doyle to go find him so he can cop a plea to stop the harassment.
Doyle steals his wife’s Volvo and heads out to the heart of the Ozarks where his big brother’s been hiding out with his girlfriend Big Annie and her daughter, Niagra (she’s named after a Marilyn Monroe flick) for two years. When he gets there, well, his purpose for coming gets tossed when Smoke offers him a chance to make some quick money. The story takes off from there.
This novel is short and a quick read. It was so compulsively readable that I read almost all in one sitting. This is a comical tale of sorts about the Redmond family and their heritage and their ties to the land. The town where the Redmonds grew up in have shops with a soda fountain where stores thrive without Wal-Mart. Everybody knows each other’s names. Being kin by blood is important especially when it comes to skirting the law. Like the Ozark mountains, the Redmonds tower instead of hunkering down.
The patriarch of the Redmond family is Panda.They were well to do family until they had to sell their land for less than it was worth because of “three finger jerks Panda couldn’t control.” He killed a man and his mother paid off the law to keep him from going to prison. Their family tree is made of up nothing but outlaws. Most had shot or cut men to death (page 84). Doyle often finds himself burdened by his gene pool. Is he a writer or an outlaw? Doyle feels the tug from the darker side of the family tree, the “semilawless hillbilly side.”
“The side of my homeland that has always attracted me, as it had all the Redmonds and Dawes from whom I spring, and held my respect.” (pg 13)
Novelist Pinckney Benedict wrote the foreword for this novel and goes into the whole hillbilly reference. He says Woodrell gets it right. The term “hillbilly” is mostly seen as derogatory and is used to describe people who live in rural or mountainous areas. The Redmonds embrace the term and it’s used all throughout the novel. The conflict in the story involves dope with each one including Doyle looking to better their circumstance. For him it’s to write another book, find that hook and become famous. The suspense part of the book involves the Redmonds feuding with the Dolly brood along with a few of their cousins. The Dolly’s made an appearance in Winter’s Bone too except I think this is more of their extended family. The Dolly’s are said to be “a legendary clan for thievery and nasty shenanigans.” They take up three columns in the phone book. They’ve been sniffing around the area of their hide-out with the baddest of the bad of the Dolly’s right on their trail.
The author gives us a shoot out or two. Along the way he inserts a bit of romance and humor. The characters are so well drawn as to be real. I had trepidation about the ending but ended up having nothing much to worry about. While I thought Winter’s Bone was good, Give Us A Kiss, was even better writing wise in my estimation. The story was tighter and the character arcs were engrossing especially Doyle, who’s not all bad but not all good either. He is somewhat an outsider to his family. He’s the only one who went to college but as he says he “keeps his diction stunted down out of crippling allegiance to his roots.” The setting as usual is a significant part of the story. There’s some hint of the spiritual world in feel and tone. The novel is rich in Redmond family history that spans generations and the author shares some notorious stories from the Redmond family tree.
There’s an ongoing theme in Woodrells books about self-identity and family and being loyal to one’s roots. Being blood kin even if it’s a few people removed goes a long way and affords one protection and can grease the wheels of justice in the Ozarks. I’d never heard the term “butthole cousin” before reading this book (and other hilarious terms). It’s defined more or less as a distant relative and they have one in Sheriff Lilley who gets after Doyle to find his brother. He also gives him an impromptu review of his book:
“You know,” he said, “my wife fetched home one of your books, Doyle. She’s a reader, I’m not, really. I never did finish it – too violent and silly.”
I stood there and took it, this capsule review from a sheriff who’d once been the object of ridicule for spelling “law enforcement” as “law engorgement” on a campaign poster. I had learned to be calm before such philistines.”
Within the narrative there’s some references to the past that were inserted to give insight into the characters and didn’t feel intrusive. This really isn’t a mystery per se but it’s hard to categorize Daniel Woodrell’s novels. This is about a crime loving family who are into illegal stuff to make some quick money but things sorta get complicated along the way. There’s a bit of violence but nothing too extreme. The humor in here fits within the natural flow of the story and didn’t feel tacked on. I had a few laugh out loud moments and some heart racing moments. This was an excellent read. It’s a bit lighter in tone and atmosphere than his most popular book, Winter’s Bone, so if you’re in the mood to give him a try, I say start with this one. My grade, A. I’ve since went to buy all of his backlist. He is the real deal. If I had to criticize anything it would be this author’s heavy use of metaphors, oy.
Under the Bright Lights (Henry Holt, 1986)
Woe to Live On (Henry Holt, 1987)
Muscle for the Wing (Henry Holt, 1988)
The Ones You Do (Henry Holt, 1992)
Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir (Henry Holt, 1996)
Tomato Red (Henry Holt, 1998)
The Death of Sweet Mister (Putnam, 2001)
Winter’s Bone (Little, Brown, 2006)
The Bayou Trilogy (Mulholland Books, 2011) (an omnibus volume collecting Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do)
The Outlaw Album (Little, Brown, 2011)
Source: I bought this book and bibliography was swiped from Wikipedia.