“Rural noir” is a somewhat difficult genre to define precisely. I have also seen it referred to as “Appalachian noir,” but I opted for the more general name because the settings of these books vary; not all of them are set in Appalachia, although a few are. These books tell dark and gritty stories, often involving crime and violence, about characters in rural settings and desperate circumstances. The characters are generally either working-class or impoverished, and their environment is typically characterized by all-consuming destitution, immorality and violence. There is a high degree of variation with respect to storyline and pacing; these books can be fast-paced and suspenseful, or they can be more deliberate with a greater emphasis on description; or, perhaps most likely, they can exist in a middle ground incorporating both suspenseful storytelling and character-based deliberation.
In contrast to the bleakness in tone and plot, the prose style of these novels is often beautifully descriptive and lyrical. Indeed, I believe it is this very contrast that lies at the heart of the genre’s appeal. These authors imbue their desolate rural settings and morally bankrupt characters with grace and poignancy simply by virtue of their delicate, intricate language. This is why the target audience for these books represents a crossover between readers of literary fiction and readers of tough crime fiction or noir. These books do not necessarily conform to the conventions of traditional “noir”—for instance, they are rarely mysteries or detective stories—but the noir label is appropriate because of the books’ intensely bleak worldviews and focus on criminal activity.
Brian goes on to talk about the ten books he chose to compile into a book talk. His goal was for these ten books to serve as an introduction to the genre. Again in Brian's words:Despite the harshness, these books often contain a central character who endeavors to escape his or her bleak environment, or at least gain some measure of justice or peace within it. Here, emphasis is often placed on vengeance or survival tactics. These struggles—sometimes tied to coming-of-age stories—introduce an element of hope, the possibility that the protagonist can survive the trials of his or her dismal surroundings and emerge with dignity and future intact.
Rural noir is a relatively new genre that has been gaining traction very recently. Eight of the ten books on this booklist were published between 2005 and 2011; three of those (Once Upon a River, The Devil All the Time, and Crimes in Southern Indiana) were all released within the past six months. The other two (Dogs of God and A Single Shot) came out in the ‘90s, and can be considered precursors to the current proliferation of the genre, although they are both considered excellent examples of rural noir. The currency of this genre is one reason why librarians and patrons could both benefit from a spotlighting of rural noir, especially considering that none of these books are major bestsellers or widely read despite the genre’s increasingly hip standingI was both impressed and intrigued by Brian's paper and wanted to make sure you were all aware of this big trend. I would also like to thank him for letting me share it with all of you. From Winter's Bone the book AND movie to the popularity of the the TV show Justified, Rural Noir is definitely an emerging genre which needs to be on your radar.
So here is Brian's ten book list of Rural Noir with appeal based annotations.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006)
Set in a tough Ozarks community where seemingly everyone has criminal ties to the meth trade, this novel follows teenage girl Ree Dolly as she tries to locate her missing father. The appeal of this book lies in the contrast between Woodrell’s lyrical language and the bleak, harsh realism of the setting and characters, as well as the suspense-generating plot structure. Ree’s resilience and bravery in the face of her hellish circumstances gives the reader a ray of hope .
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (2011)Set in rural Michigan, this novel follows sixteen-year-old Margo Crane as she fends for herself on a perilous river journey in search of her lost mother. The prose is simple, but Campbell emphasizes the details of how Margo survives on her own. Gritty violence is balanced with tender emotion. Fans of Winter’s Bone who enjoyed that book’s strong young heroine, journey structure, and rural grit should seek out this novel.
Serena by Ron Rash (2008)Set in the North Carolina mountains in 1929, this novel follows a married couple who attempt to start a timber empire, but their greed leads to murder. Beautiful descriptions of the natural Appalachian landscape butt heads with the brutality of the violence committed by the characters, particularly anti-heroine Serena, who has been compared to such evil women of literature as Lady Macbeth.
Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict (1994)
Set in rural West Virginia, this thriller revolves around a backwoods drug lord named Tannhauser, a young boxer named Goody, and the grotesque lowlifes they encounter. Benedict etches these characters through multiple points of view, and lays on the Appalachian atmosphere thickly.
Rain Gods by James Lee Burke (2009)
Hackberry Holland, the new sheriff of a small Texas border town, investigates the murder of nine prostitutes and finds himself in a cat-and-mouse game with a preacher turned serial killer. The prose is lyrical and thoughtful but the book has the pacing of a thriller, and the tone is gritty and dark. It is also character-centered, with psychology of both the sheriff and the killer.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (2011)Set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, this novel follows a group of violent characters from the 1940s through the 1960s. The style is blunt and plain, the story is engrossing, and the numerous characters are well-drawn and memorable despite the book’s brevity; Pollock treats even the worst of them with empathy and compassion. At the center of the book is another coming-of-age protagonist fighting to escape (or at least find justice in) this bleak landscape.
Go With Me by Castle Freeman (2008)In Vermont hill country, a young woman named Lillian is menaced by local villain Blackway, and enlists the help of an old mill proprietor and his Greek Chorus-like companions to fight back. The book is suspenseful and gritty, but also has a playful sense of humor that is not usually present in these books.
A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones (1996)Set in an unnamed mountain town, this novel follows John Moon, a poacher who accidentally shoots a teenage girl and pockets the $100,000 he finds on her; it turns out the girl was linked to a couple of criminals, who come looking for the money. This book may be the most intense and frightening on this list. It has detailed descriptions and the protagonist is complex.
Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill (2011)A short story collection set in southern Indiana (as the title indicates). Each gritty story focuses on violent men struggling to find solutions to the messes of their lives. The tone is despairing and bleak; the desperate, blue-collar characters are complex; the style is terse and hard-boiled. Some of the characters recur in different stories.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)Set in the Southwest, McCarthy’s novel—the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film by the Coen brothers—follows Texan man Llewellyn Moss as he steals a stash of money and heroin he finds on a dead man. A local sheriff and a psychotic hired killer enter the mix as McCarthy meditates on violence and the nature of good and evil. Gritty, lyrical, stylistically complex.