21 October 2011: Redneck noir — finally, a genre for us

Posted: October 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Don’t worry, I’m not going to invoke Jeff Foxworthy in this post. Hell, I won’t even mention him.

Sitting around in airports most of the last two weeks has allowed my mind to wander — probably a bit too much. Not long ago, I got to thinking about writers and movies, and how my favorites all seem to have something in common. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, other than that commonality had its roots, its very breath of life, in the South. And not just the South, the Deep South. And not just the mint-julep, y’all-come-back-now, belle of the ball Deep South. More like the moonshine, you-ain’t-from-around-here-are-you-boy?, crazy-aunt-with-a-shotgun Deep South. But not stereotypes, which are all too common and all too easy. I was thinking … “redneck noir.” Hey, that sounded pretty good — I thought I actually had an original idea! Until I Googled it the next morning.

Yeah, it’s been used. But it hasn’t really been defined, at least officially (whatever that means). I’m going to run with it. So you heard it here first.

So, what does it mean? I guess the first part is to define “redneck.” As I said, it’s not stereotypes, although stereotypes do play into it. To me, there’s a redneck culture that — while including NASCAR, moonshine, an accent and coondogs — that involves more a way of life than anything else. (Believe it or not, a politician defined it just about as well as anyone ever has. See Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s Born Fighting for a lengthy discourse on the redneck culture).

And even the word deserves a little more scrutiny here. Contrary to what people outside the South may think, not every Southerner sees him or herself as a redneck. Kind of like a lot of Cajuns think the word “coonass” is an insult to Cajuns, some Southerners get offended if you call them a redneck. True, within Southern culture, there are very distinct social lines, both in the black and white cultures. In other words, while folks up in Michigan (where I’m sure you could find a redneck or two) may refer to all Southerners as rednecks, down in Mississippi, it’s a totally different distinction. This, in sociolinguistics terms, is called covert prestige, which is a fancy way of saying, “We may call each other that, but you can’t.”

But I’m digressing. When I use the term, I am referring to a culture, not a type of person (I could spend another 20 minutes drawing the distinction between “redneck” and “white trash” but that’s another story). A culture that is primarily, but not exclusively, Southern. It’s not quite Everyman, more like Everybud. It’s typically a working-class, pragmatic — even fatalistic — culture that measures its members by their personal honor (which is defined by the group ethos), their “guts,” their skill in certain real-world situations (whether it be outwitting a crooked cop, running a trot line or having the best business in town). It’s people built from the ground up, who respect an honest day’s work and are suspicious if not outright distrustful of those with power and/or wealth. They don’t want to be told what to do, and they aren’t likely to tell you how to go about your business. They can take a lot of the world’s tough lessons because they’re used to it, but push them too hard and they won’t just push back, they’ll knock you on your ass. They’re proud and stubborn, and loyal almost to a fault. And if you betray that loyalty, you are dead to them.

So to tell the story of this culture, in a redneck noir way, is to stay far, far away from stereotypes. Our literature and movies are filled with examples of getting it all wrong. I remember a cringe-worthy “Shake and Bake” commercial from my youth that made Southern kids look like a bunch of dunces. And I will say with a straight face that The Beverly Hillbillies was closer to the truth than The Dukes of Hazzard.

So who gets it right? Who set the standard? The standard, if there is in fact one, had to originate with Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Don’t believe me? Read (or watch via Netflix) “Barn Burning” or read Wise Blood. “Barn Burning,” one of Faulkner’s short stories, highlights the Snopeses, a Mississippi family that appears throughout his writings. If you strip away the convoluted language, the stream of consciousness and the profundity of what Faulkner was doing, therein is the redneck culture. And it’s been copied ever since. There are a few writers who have, in my opinion anyway, nailed it. James Dickey, for example. No, I’m not talking about that damn scene in Deliverance. Forget that part, and really focus on the locals in that movie — not how they talk and look, but who they are.

Speaking of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds got it right. In his early movies (Gator, White Lightning), Reynolds got inside the redneck male’s psyche and pulled it out for all of us to look at. One of the best, and most hilarious, looks at the culture came from Roy Blount, Jr.  Blount wrote the laugh-out-loud Crackers (another derivative of redneck that is in fact an insult) shortly after Jimmy Carter won the presidency.

Today, the landscape feels a little different. Like the Westerns of old, which were reinvented into what some now call Revisionist Westerns, today’s redneck writers have most definitely injected the noir into it. My three favorites are all very similar in style, and they’re all from Arkansas. Of course I’m talking about Billy Bob Thornton. Say what you will, but the man’s a genius when it comes to writing the South. Sling Blade is, as far as I’m concerned, the most perfect piece of fiction ever put on the screen. Nobody has ever captured the dialect, the culture, the whateveritisthatmakesuswhoweare like Thornton did with that movie.

Not to get too “inside baseball,” but here’s an example of what I mean. Sometime at the beginning of the movie (or the version I rented anyway), an image appeared onscreen – presumably, a sling blade. When I saw that image, I remarked, aloud, “That’s what my daddy used to call a ‘kaiser blade.’” Then, very early in the movie, Thornton’s character (Carl) states that he killed his mother with “ … a kaiser blade. Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade.”

After I saw it, I almost quit writing fiction altogether because I thought I could spend the rest of my life and never get anywhere close to that. The other two writers that are in this group are Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins. You may remember McKinnon from “Deadwood.” He’s also currently in “Sons of Anarchy.” He’s also a hell of a writer.  Redneck down to his toes. He and Goggins are sort of writing and acting partners and won an Oscar for their short, The Accountant. It’s a grim look at poverty, alcohol abuse, hard people and hard decisions. It’s also nearly as arresting as Sling Blade. The scene around the campfire brought me completely off my couch in awe. Goggins and McKinnon also wrote, produced and starred in Randy and the Mob, a hysterical, odd movie — same themes, different twist. And they’ve teamed up with Billy Bob. Goggins is also in the cast of “Justified,” where he plays an Iago-esque villain and foil to the hero.

And now that I mention “Justified,” Elmore Leonard gets it right, too — and he’s not even a Southerner. Leonard wrote the short story that became the series, and his novels typically feature at least one redneck, or a character with strong redneck tendencies. His writing has been called “gritty realism.” But “Justified” is where he really gets it right, because it’s a really a story about characters, and there are plenty. I’ve written about the show before, so I won’t rehash it here, but this is the best working example of redneck noir in entertainment today.

But, my primary example is still the late Larry Brown. I’ve written about him before, too. While there are other Southern writers out there with the same style (Mississippi’s Steve Yarbrough and Alabama’s Tom Franklin), Brown’s work comes closest to defining the style I’m thinking about. He went on a tear with a group of novels – Dirty Work (1989), Joe (1991), Father and Son (1996), and Fay (2000) —  that  left me not only in awe of his skill as a storyteller, but genuinely moved by his depiction of a culture. Likewise, Yarbrough’s Oxygen Man takes the culture head-on – a white Mississippi male whose only real friends are black men with whom he works on a Delta catfish farm. At first glance, it feels like a racism story, and in a way it is. But Yarbrough goes where few writers do (Faulkner being one) and where even fewer go with such skill. Yarbrough delves into the class divisions, rather than the racial ones, in Mississippi society (see cover prestige above). Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (and if you’re from Mississippi, the title needs no explanation), draws parallels in its treatment of the racial divide – and even flips some of the conventional roles – a black cop, a white thug.

What all three have in common is what defines redneck noir – they strip away all the stereotypes and dare to be honest. What remains is an examination of a culture that is often tragic, sometimes violent, always human.

So. Redneck noir. Like I said,  you heard it here first.

  1. Phillip,
    Awesome blog post. Billy Bob’s Sling Blade moved me in the same way. I grew up in that part of Arkansas and I was amazed at how authentic the characters were in that movie. Every small town there has a Carl. And that asshole played by Dwight Yoakum. And the gay dollar store manager played by John Ritter. We had “Crazy Gloria” who supposedly went insane when her husband died “years ago”, and would stand on street corners waving toilet paper streamers at passersby. And no s..t, same thing happened with me identifying a “kaiser blade” aloud to the friend who was watching the movie with me. I also read and thoroughly enjoyed Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Have you read One Mississippi by Mark Childress? Pretty hilarious scene where a high school English teacher is introducing her class to Shakespeare and informs them that they are to read “Henry V8”!

    As an aside…several years ago, when I first started traveling with the Navy and meeting lots of non-Southerners, I had dinner with a couple and conversation led to questions about where I grew up. Upon answering “Arkansas”, the wife said “Oh wow, I never met anyone from the mid-West before.” God. I may as well have said Mars.

    Enjoyed the post. I admire the way you openly embrace your Southern heritage. Since I moved “up here”, I ashamedly ignore mine. Not out of embarrassment, but because no one could possibly get it.

    Lastly, even though it strays from the South, for more regional and rural authenticity, if you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone, it’s a pretty good look at rural Southern Missouri, where my dad has lived for the past several years. You can stream it off Netflix.


    • olemissgrad says:

      Hey, Darren, thanks very much. I know what you mean about others not getting it. I spent many, too many, of my years in the Marine Corps saying , “Yes, I’m from Mississippi, but …” And yeah, I’ve heard, “Oh. Mississippi. I think I drove there once,” way too many times.

      Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) is an awesome writer. He was, up until recently, the writer in residence at Ole Miss, and I had the very good fortune (completely the luck of the draw) to have him as my instructor/tutor at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference a few years ago. He’d just published Poachers then, and I almost died when I found out he was at Ole Miss. Talk about pressure. But learning under him, if only for a week, was truly a gift.

      I haven’t read Childress, but I will now, for sure. Same with Winter’s Bone. Just put it in my Netflix queue.

  2. Randy Weeks says:

    Enjoyed the blog Phillip. To the typical non-southerner it would be an “aha” moment while we fellow -good old boys read with a smile on our face and an understanding that only can be associated with having “been there”. One is touched of the mind with understanding while the other is poked in the heart with a sense of pride that causes the chest muscles to expand. In other words it’s like a guy from Wisconsin doing a heart-felt karaoke to 38 Special’s Wild – Eyed Southern Boy or an Oregonian whilstling Dixie – yep, might be entertaining to watch but when it comes to true understanding….well in the words of our famous Tennessee Uncle Jed… “Pitiful, just Pitiful!”
    Keep up the good work my friend
    #30 NH

  3. […] Earlier this month, I posted about the movie Night of the Hunter, which was recommended by a friend a candidate for the movie category of the continuing discussion of redneck noir. […]

  4. […] Comments John Stevens on 22 January 2012: Redneck noir …22 January 2012: Red… on 21 October 2011: Redneck noir …Mike Pavolko on What you need to knowChris Roberts on 14 January 2012: Poetry or…Edward […]

  5. […] For those of not familiar with this project, this novel is a different kind of story from my previous ones. For one, it’s not a Wade Stuart story. It has, I hope, a different feel and “sound” than those. It’s closer to the type of writing I’ve been trying to achieve for a long time — what I’ve defined as “redneck noir.” […]

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