Long-time readers know that the Nerd is a recent convert to the church of Daniel Woodrell. Said readers are probably also aware that I am a fucking abortion-clinic-bombing-level fanatical acolyte of said church as well. Well, dear reader, let me assure your ass that The Bayou Trilogy, a spiffy-looking collection of his early novels featuring detective Rene Shade (Under The Bright Lights, Muscle For The Wing, and The Ones You Do), did not shake my faith in the fucking slightest. In fact, The Bayou Trilogy reveals that the savior was once human, a carpenter of crime blessed at first with a natural knack for his craft (Under The Bright Lights), then later a master of the form (Muscle For The Wing), to eventually revealing himself to being absolutely fucking transcendant in his technique (The Ones You Do). But as I have belabored this metaphor for long enough, let’s you and I get into the shit, regardless if ye be choir or unwashed sinner. (I can’t fucking stop!)
The Bayou Trilogy takes place in the fictional Louisiana city of St. Bruno, a burg that lies on the water body known as the Marais du Croche, its neighborhoods long ago divided into French (Frogtown), black (Pan Fry), or plain-old wealthy (Hawthorne Hills). Detective Rene Shade is Irish and French with strong ties both criminal and blue collar in Frogtown. His older brother Tip runs a Frogtown bar where the asses on the stools run towards the lawless end while his younger brother Francois is the District Attorney and lives in Hawthorne Hills with his yuppie wife. Rene’s mother, Ma Blanqui, runs a pool hall only slightly more on the up and up than her oldest son’s bar while the boys’ old man, John X., has been missing from town for years, reports of him poolsharking in this town or that throughout the south occasionally making their way back to Tip’s bar from time to time.
His past, family, neighborhood, and social life so steeped in lawlessness, Rene’s journey throughout the novels is often more about holding onto a shaky code in a corrupt world than it is about catching the badmen. In St. Bruno the lines are never clearly drawn, with the politicians and police often even more crooked than the people they’re supposed to govern and protect. As a middle child between a criminal bar owner and a prosecutor (who is no monument to justice himself – Moonstruck reference completely intended) and as a cop in general, Rene straddles the criminal and occasionally-less criminal world of the legal system with every step he takes through the mean streets of his beloved, shambling city.
The Bayou Trilogy kicks shit off with Under The Bright Lights which details Rene’s investigation into the death of a prominent black politician from Pan Fry. While the brass and his brother Francois want him to treat the murder as a burglary gone wrong, Rene and his charmingly dickish partner How Blanchette soon find out that the murder is part of a power struggle taking place between Pan Fry and Frogtown gangsters. Woodrell plays it Elmore Leonard-style, letting us into the world of the criminals committing the murders in addition to showing us How and Rene’s progress with the case, less concerned with surprises and mystery than setting up a complex world of complicated and colorful men on both sides of the law before putting the fucking screws to ’em.
Woodrell takes this approach even further with Muscle For The Wing, a ridiculously kinetic, what-the-fuck-is-gonna-happen-next novel like few that I’ve read in quite a while. After the careful world building of Under The Bright Lights we get this fucking non-stop ticking clock of a book that gives you paper cuts you’re turning those pages so fucking fast. (I am aware, ebookverse, that paper and page-turning references will only make sense for a little while longer.) It’s the story of some bad motherfuckers coming to Frogtown with their eyes on taking it over, their first act being making some capital by ripping off highstakes card games all across town. In the middle of one of their heists they cap the game’s security guard, the victim later revealed to be a moonlighting cop. Under orders from the chief to execute the dirty copkillers once discovered, Rene is partnered with a violent gangster he used to run with as a boy instead of his trusty buddy How. As he and the thug get closer to figuring out the gang’s identity, you’ll be just as curious to see if Rene can kill in cold blood as he is himself. That is, if you actually have a moment to think beyond just plowing through this intense fucking beast.
Then comes the beautifully understated The Ones You Do, the novel that will seem most familiar to fans of Woodrell’s post-Bayou Trilogy work. In it we see what happens when John X. returns to the bosom of his family after many years absent, a bosom he finds less than pillowy at first. He’s on the run and hiding out after a misunderstanding with the notoriously sociopathic Lunch Pumphrey (yeah, Woodrell’s kinda amazing at names), his ten-year-old child from another mother, Etta, in tow. Like Tomato Red (no shit one of the best books I’ve ever read) and The Death of Sweet Mister (no fucking slouch itself), The Ones You Do is more relaxed in tone and less recognizable as a straight-up crime novel. Also like those two aforementioned pieces of amazing, it’s both euphorically joyful and utterly heartbreaking in that distinctive Woodrell way.
I’m sure these books all worked perfectly fine in their previous forms as individual novels released years apart, but to read them one after another in one volume is really something to behold. To keep St. Bruno’s mythology, and that of the Shade family in particular, fresh in your mind as you work your way through each book enriches the experience in countless ways, with certain characters that were minor in one novel fleshed out in a later one, places deeply explored in the first novel mentioned passingly in the next, lending the world a reality, a comforting familiarity and taste even. Basically, what the Nerd is trying to say is, if you haven’t read any of this shit you definitely gotta pick it up toot-sweet and, if you’ve already dipped your toes in St. Bruno before, The Bayou Trilogy is one hell of a way to dunk your head back in and be re-baptized. (You knew I couldn’t drop the church thing that easily, right?)