The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

2011. Little, Brown and Company. Paperback. 470 pages.

Under the Bright Lights. Originally published 1986.

Muscle for the Wing. Originally published 1988.

The Ones You Do. Originally published 1992.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This omnibus contains Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy: three books set in the underbelly of St. Bruno, a fictional city in Louisiana. Detective Rene Shade had a troublemaking childhood and a boxing career that ended in a locally-famous defeat. Now he’s a detective whose work and life brush him against the gamut of criminality. His older brother owns a bar and his younger brother is a lawyer. His father skipped town a long time ago, and his mother runs a small pool hall out of her home. Under the Bright Lights follows the fallout of a black city councilman’s murder; Muscle for the Wing tells the story of when a small group of ex-con outsiders, aided by the hard-as-nails wife of their jailed pal, clash with Saint Bruno’s established crime boss; The Ones You Do sees the return of Shade’s father to Saint Bruno, a ten-year-old daughter in tow, with trouble not far behind him.


I loved Daniel Woodrell’s book Winter’s Bone, both times that I read it. I saw this trilogy at the library and decided to follow up on Woodrell. Under the Bright Lights was his first published book.

My last few books have all been quite British, and I felt in the mood for this: something a little seedy, something a little down-and-out Americana. And there’s certainly nothing genteel about The Bayou Trilogy. If this was a film, it would be a hard ‘R’, provided a few things were moved off-screen.

For all that the books are about a detective, Woodrell has a knack for writing about people on the wrong side of the law. Plot-wise, I think I liked Under the Bright Lights the best, because I liked seeing the shake-down of Saint Bruno’s criminal hierarchy. At the bottom of the heap is a cocky hick named Jewel Cobb, used as an unknowing pawn by his city cousin. The thoughts in his head were fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way.

Character-wise, the third book The Ones You Do might have had the best payoff. I never really warmed up to Shade as a character, but the cluster of new characters in the last book intrigued me. Shade’s returned father, John X. Shade was a nicely-drawn portrait of a man who’s lost his game but can’t quite admit to what aging is doing to him. That said, I wavered on whether I liked the side plot involving him and an old Saint Bruno acquaintance with a grudge. As far as other characters, I also liked the scenes with Rene Shade’s odd half-sister, ten-year-old Etta, and Tip’s new girlfriend, Gretel, who was a child of hippies.

Woodrell’s writing didn’t consistently please me in The Bayou Trilogy as it did in Winter’s Bone. There was some figurative language that I thought tried too hard, as can happen with noirish books like this one. But when Woodrell is on, he’s on. There is a chapter in Muscle for the Wing that begins with a sketch of St. Bruno’s past and then sweeps through time cinematically to land on Detective Shade as he rides in an El Dorado driven by an estranged childhood pal named Shuggie Zeck. There was such an effortless skill to it that made me go ‘wow.’

The Bayou Trilogy is not something I’d quickly recommend to anyone. Winter’s Bone was my kind of gritty, but I cringed at parts of The Bayou Trilogy and there are a couple of passages I wouldn’t mind unseeing. But at the very least, let me try and sell you on Woodrell’s writing. Here is an excerpt from Under the Bright Lights where Detective Shade is trying to track down a perp.

Shade began to trot down the streets, knowing that he was most of an hour behind. The retail businesses had closed as a rule, and only taverns, the Woolworths, and video arcades were open. He paused to ask questions in the arcades, thus giving every would-be wiseass and nascent tough guy the chance to define himself by his response. Adolescent drollery and derivative insolence. Shade didn’t have the time for it, so he turned toward the river and began to lope . . .

Rousseau Street flanked the river. It was a street of warehouses, flophouses, and Jesus missions, peopled by winos, the perpetually hard of luck, and one or two who were roughly saints. Coal bins lined the tracks, providing a haven for those rambling men who couldn’t spare a buck for a flop and refused to perjure themselves on the God issue for the payoff bowl of soup and green-blanketed bunk. Urban Darwinism was at work in the grim light of this place, where the mean got over with their no-limit rage, while the weak went under, silently.

p. 101

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book’d Out – “Woodrell’s characters are all boldly drawn with attention to detail and credibility.”

Linus’s Blanket – “While the point is for Shade to solve his case, the novel is just as much a sociological study of both the investigators and crime perpetrators – where they come from, how they live and their motivations.” [This is a review of the first of the trilogy].

Rundpinne – “Rarely do I come across a writer who can so deftly create an atmosphere that I believe I know, even though I have never been to any place even remotely resembling St. Bruno.”


Filed under Book Review

6 responses to “The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

  1. The prose is quite evocative for sure; I hadn’t taken note of this author, but I’m definitely intrigued by your thoughts on his work.

    • I love Winter’s Bone, as you may have gathered from my review above, so if you want to try Woodrell that would be what I recommend. It’s a very short book too.

  2. I’m reading it right now, and also come to these books by way of Winter’s Bone (thought I read Tomato Red inbetween). The writing is not as good as Winter’s Bone, you are right.

    But even when below par for Woodrell, the writing is above par for most writers out there.

    • Thanks for your comment! I come across so few people who have read Woodrell, much less have read more than one book by him. Glad to meet another fan.

  3. Nearly Headless Ned

    He’s a fantastic writer. The Outlaw Album, his short story collection is more in the vein of Winters Bone and is also worth checking out.

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