By Patrick Ledford, contributor
If you are tired of the same fluff reading that the major publishing houses try to shove down your throat each month; if you want something with some guts, some fortitude; if you want to read books that feel like a gravel road, backwoods stomp, happy hour at a honky-tonk, guiltless crime spree, then grit lit is the trailer park bar-b-que you need to find yourself posted up at. There is a new breed of gunslinger in town. The good news is their work pays respect to the Doc Hollidays and the Wyatt Earps who taught them how to shoot.
Grit Lit is Southern Gothic on speed and ripe for violence. The characters in these books operate by their own moral code. What is wrong to some is really the only thing they know how to do. Characters are whiskey-swilling gun-carrying bandits. The women are morally bankrupt due to a life that has done them wrong. As for men, they were just born bad. That’s not to say that the genre doesn’t have characters who envoke sympathy or some they may even be worthy of saving. However, nothing is without a price. As the adage goes, there is no such thing as an old outlaw. They are either dead, in jail, or working at the Piggly Wiggly.
Grit Lit isn’t limited to the south, but rather any place where out-of-work coal miners, factory workers, and lumberjacks begin to rebel and start burning bright. From Louisiana and Georgia, to Ohio and Indiana, Grit Lit has a way of rearing its buck tooth grinning head. Grit Lit is blue collar, redneck, white trash, moonshining America at it’s core.
In Grit Lit, consequences hold little regard. To paraphrase Jim Thompson’s main character from After Dark, My Sweet, if these characters were any one other than themselves, they may actually be able to walk away from the situations they have gotten into. In Grit Lit, protagonists see the crime to the end, no matter the hellfire and brimstone. There is no walking away. Whether it be a quest for revenge or just a down home bank robbery, everyone goes down swinging. That’s how they were raised and that is how its going to be. These characters are not affected by the economy. They have been poor all their lives. The only politics they are concerned with are if the money is right when the deal goes down. They are desolate and volatile common folk who will do what they have to do to get the job done. Grit Lit is an uncensored, “balls to the wall,” literary throw down.
To understand the present state of Grit Lit, you have to understand where it originated. Grit Lit started with guys like Faulkner and an often forgotten noir kingpin named Jim Thompson. Their work laid the groundwork for what would morph into Grit Lit over the last ten years. Faulkner’s characters were often as compelling as they were violent. Anyone who has read Faulkner’s Sanctuary knows just how deep and dark he could get. Thompson spun classic yarns of downward spirals, failed crimes, and buxom beauties that bring the whole house down. Thompson captivated his readers with the darkness that floats in the depths of the vast Texas oilfields with instant classics like A Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. Thompson predated the gravel of Grit Lit with dark brutish noir. After Faulkner and Thompson, there is Cormac McCarthy. His tales of the borderlands of America are brutal, poignant, and captivating. With Cormac setting his sights toward Hollywood and the other greats long since cold in the ground, the throne was left vacant. In steps Grit Lit.
Instead of a single author lighting fires, there are several guys spearheading the genre. Frank Bill’s blogspot, House of Grit, first introduced to the term Grit Lit. I consumed his first novel, Crimes in Southern Indiana. The novel consists of short stories that interwove a community and multiple characters over many years. In Bill’s fiction, nothing is off limits and crimes are generational. Crimes in Southern Indiana reminds the reader that in a small town, the consequences of one’s actions can reverberate for generations. Characters are quick to throw punches, pull triggers, drink, and generally commiserate themselves on the bedlam of their everyday life. His sophomore effort, Donnybrook, is a tale of hillbilly magic, violence, and unsavory characters all spiraling toward a legendary backwoods bare-knuckle contest. Its hard to tell who the good guys are because no one is pure hearted and every one, good or bad, gets what is coming to them. Bill’s writing is honest, terse, engaging, and best of all, gritty.
Another author operating in Bill’s area of the country is Donald Ray Pollock. Like Bill’s work, his books take place in Ohio and Indiana. Just like Frank Bill, Pollock’s writing is fierce and visceral. His first novel, Knockemstiff, is a collection of short stories that are centered around the real town of Knockemstiff, located in southern Ohio. Pollock paints southern Ohio as dismal and desolate as the souls of his characters. Knockemstiff is packed full of fist fights, lost dreams, and damned hearts. Pollock should know; it’s where he is from. The Devil All The Time, Pollock’s second novel, demonstrates his capacity writing engrossing, affecting, yet vicious tales. The Devil All The Time is similar to Knockemstiff and Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana in that the novel is made up of short stories that interlace. Pollock has the tenacity as a writer to control the brutality and lawlessness that his characters inflict upon each other. His words do not pass judgement on his characters, but rather provide a bird’s eye view of their actions and consequences.
Last Call for the Living by Peter Farris, his writing debut, is an ode to the wild west. A magnetic thrill ride set in small town Georgia, Farris devotes his pages to a bank robbery gone wrong. Last Call for the Living is an adrenaline-filled jacked-up tale set on the edge of a razor blade. What makes Farris a talent to watch is that he encompassed the Aryan Brotherhood, a burnt out sheriff, an attractive FBI agent, snake handling preachers, and a “desperate for one last score” ex-con with a psycho girlfriend into a novel that never dulls and delivers at the end of every page. As with Bill and Polluck, Peter Farris’ writing is enigmatic, explosive, and volatile.
While Pollock, Bill, and Farris are up and coming, Daniel Woodrell has been delivering the goods since the late 80s. However, it was not until he published Give Us a Kiss in 1996 that he broke into the Grit Lit territory. Woodrell has done for the Ozarks what Stephen King did for Maine. Most of Woodrell’s novels take place in the very area he grew up. As a writer, Woodrell perfectly brings the landscape of the Ozarks to life and fills the mountains and rivers with characters who may be down on their luck and desperate, but also hopeful. As Bill’s and Pollock’s characters are potentially vile and degenerate, Woodrell seems to pour a shade of empathy into the lives of the afflicted. Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone made into the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, is a crowning achievement. It is a teenage girl’s futile attempt to find her drug addled father in the wilderness of her Ozark community after he disappears. Woodrell also wrote Bayou Trilogy, which take place in the boozy swamp parish of Saint Bruno. The novels follow the escapades of Detective Rene’ Shade and his criminal family. Released from 1986 to 1992, Under The Bright Lights, Muscle For The Wing, and The Ones You Do are lyrical fast paced classics that escort readers through the seedy back alleys and bar room shadows that their characters inhabit. Just like apple pie moonshine, Woodrell’s Grit Lit has a smooth after taste and a suave burn.
These authors are not the only ones. Anything by William Gay, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin or Larry Watson will be a slick introduction to the genre. If you want to visit the past, pick up Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, and anything by Thompson. For me, Frank Bill can be credited with the phrase, but there are several authors contributing to the foundation. In 2012, Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin put together an anthology of stories, Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, containing up-and-coming voices and old legends. A Rough South Leader delivers a vast sampling of what makes up southern writing, new and old. Grit Lit is a sound grouping from writers of the past and present. If you want to dive into murky alligator filled waters, if you want to take a swing at the guy who pinched your girl at the bar, if you want to sell dope, run from the law, and generally raise some hell, start with Pollock, Bill, Farris and Woodrell. You have been warned, but you won’t be sorry.