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RICHARD EDER

Real Men Don't Write Novels : FICTION : GIVE US A KISS: A Country Noir, By Daniel Woodrell (Henry Holt: $22.50; 237 pp.)

February 25, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Popcorn is notable, and so is grande cuisine. The difference is that with popcorn, the miracle comes in the first two or three bites; after that comes a decline successively into satisfaction and repletion, with no lasting sense of being either ravished or nourished. The miracle of grande cuisine builds bit by bit, and an awed pleasure persists not only after the meal ends but weeks and months later.

That said, thank heaven and possibly Elmore Leonard (wryly acknowledged near the end) for Daniel Woodrell's blood-and-guts Ozarks comedy subtitled, self-consciously, "A Country Noir." It is not grande cuisine; it is not even a real "noir," since its tough-guy narrator is also the self-conscious author of several modestly successful works in the genre. The only darkness he undergoes, despite two killings, is the necessity to strangle a dog. It is popcorn, all right, and it is fresh, salty and a nonlasting miracle.

Woodrell, whose last book was "The Ones You Do," does it all with the voice--his gory and far-fetched plots, like grand opera librettos, are an occasion for the music. It is grouchy, comic, nervy music--it does not soar but darts along the ground like a newt. Here at the start is Doyle Redmond, on the lam back to the Ozarks from California, driving his wife's yellow Volvo, which, to avoid detection, is dyed an incompetent pea-green:

"I had a family errand to run, that's all, but I decided to take a pistol. It was just a little black .32 ladystinger and I tucked it into the blue pillowcase that held my traveling clothes. The pillowcase sat on the passenger's seat, because you never know when you'll need to slide a hand in there, all of a sudden, somewhere along the road."

Doyle's wife is a snooty academic poet, sleeping her way up the tenure track and scorning his novels of gritty city life and crime. He won't be read after he's dead, this admittedly cutout figure--a pop-tart among the iambs--informs him on her way to bed a famous visiting poet. And Doyle is off to his scaly roots in the town of West Table, Mo., seat of Howl County and home of his fabulous 83-year-old grandfather, Panda Redmond.

The Redmonds are fabulous in their lawless generations. Pandawas arrested years ago for shooting dead a famously no-good member of the rival Dolly clan. He would have got off for the first shot, the sheriff told him, "but you'll have to go down for the second and third"--fired when the Dolly was "down and begging." The family's prime 1,700 acres had to be sold to pay off sheriffs, prosecutors, judges and legislators and get Panda off on self-defense.

Doyle's mother and father have gone reluctantly straight and live in Kansas City. His older brother Smoke, wanted there for robbery, has holed up in the hills and his parents ask Doyle to go see him and get him to give himself up. No Redmond would turn in a relative but they are weary of the steady pressure from the police. "The law had been on their butts almost daily, with spot visits and surly phone calls at all hours, and had finally worn them out as parents."

After polishing off most of a bottle of Scotch with Panda, whose weak knees confine him to shooting supper squirrels from his porch, Doyle drives him to the Howl River to tickle illegally for catfish. The sheriff catches them but--being a distant cousin--lets them go; he also, being a cousin, takes their fish. Doyle sets off to find his brother.

Smoke, his long gray hair in a braid, has retreated to a cabin with Big Annie, a former hippie, and her infinitely sexy daughter Niagra, who dreams of going to Hollywood and studying acting. Doyle brings out his pistol as a pro-forma gesture; Smoke ignores it and enlists him to help cultivate a stand of "wacky backy" (marijuana) that will make them all lots of money.

"Give Us a Kiss" plays itself out with moonlight trips to irrigate the crop from a water bed carried on the back of a truck, a romance between Doyle and the quirky Niagra, feasts and excursions, confrontations with a squad of hostile Dollys bent on taking over the crop, a lot of shooting, three deaths (including a Dolly dog that Doyle is forced to kill) and a reasonably sunny ending.

True, Doyle is in jail and Niagra has taken her loot to Hollywood; on the other hand, he is finally famous: "Hillbilly Novelist in Hillbilly Feud," the headlines read, and Elrod Chuck, the hottest crime writer in America ("who'd never seen fit to blurb any of my novels") comes to write him up for Esquire. Publishers are vying for the next novel.

There is more than a little formula to the story. The obligatory shootout at the end is done well enough, but like so many hard-boiled action scenes it may do more for the writer than for the reader. Niagra, with her short shorts, red boots, steady innocent ambition and occasional innocent lust, calls to mind any number of other Southern sexpot nymphets (though she's 19). Woodrell gives her some original touches but even as they make her quirkier they make her less real.

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