by Jesse Ruddock
Coach House Books, 224 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell do a reading and Q&A. His performance was about what you might expect for a reclusive writer hailing from the forgotten hillbilly pocket that is the Ozarks, an area of steep hills and spidery lakes in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. He had a funny goatee and spoke with an accent that most people in America probably don’t even know exists, twangy yet somehow refined and oddly beautiful, a bit like his novels. Those novels almost all focus on poor rural people who struggle with drugs, the loss of parents, and deep pain, yet they are shot through with a breathtaking lyricism. He opens Winter’s Bone:
Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.
The influences most frequently associated with Woodrell are Faulkner and the King James’ Bible, but to me his writing sings with the unacknowledged brilliance of hick grandparents, early mornings spent outdoors, and the kind of loneliness that can do weird things to a person. It simply feels like Woodrell is writing without anyone looking over his shoulder, like he might’ve lost touch with the world. He’s one in a long tradition of reclusive novelists and poets who think the best place to write is not a shoebox apartment but a cabin in the woods. This tendency in turn has helped to create a wide body of literature set in just such isolated locations, with characters who either seek this lonely, monastic lifestyle for themselves, or find themselves thrust into it.
Jesse Ruddock’s first novel, Shot-Blue, is one of those books. The main character is a young boy named Tristan who, through no choice of his own, finds himself in a remote place called Lake Prioleau. Prioleau is an out of the way body of water in an out of the way corner of Canada. More Nova Scotia than Ontario. Shot-Blue takes place entirely on the banks, and in the waters, of Prioleau. By the end of the 200-plus- page novel Tristan traverses the lake many times, visiting the different towns that sparsely populate the banks and islands, but never leaves. He’s not too happy there, but he doesn’t know anywhere else. The lake is his home. The same is true of his mother, Rachel. In the novel’s first few pages, Rachel brings Tristan to the small cabin where she grew up. The cabin is on an island with nothing much else besides trees. Since there are no people on the island, there’s nowhere for her to work, no one for Tristan to talk to, and no place for him to go to school.
As a parenting decision it’s hard to understand, yet Ruddock isn’t interested in helping us figure out her characters. They are, frankly, all mysteries, and that’s the most alluring and frustrating bit of the whole book. Watching Tristan swim in the water near their cabin, Rachel thinks, “I love (him) … His knees were bruised, but he was otherwise perfect, and as if he could hear her thoughts—maybe he could, what did she know—he found her eyes and smiled at her.” As far as parent child conversations go in this novel, this is about as close as it gets to a heart to heart.
The most direct comment the book has on Rachel comes secondhand. A man named Keb whom Rachel has begun sleeping with for extra money is sitting in a bar, feeling sorry for himself because he can’t be with her at that moment: “She was the least sentimental person he’d ever met,” the narrator intones. And yet, reading that sentence—with its alchemical mix of Keb’s perspective and some sort of omniscient narrator—it is hard to know whether to believe it.
Tristan is even more withdrawn than Rachel; his emotions seem unclear to himself, and are even more so to his mother. In the first few pages Rachel lays a hand on his shoulder and reflects, “She’d made this shoulder, but it was even smaller than her idea of it. Did she not know him? Not even his shoulder.”
Tristan is a quiet boy with a slight, androgynous figure and dark black hair that later in the novel he grows into a long ponytail. He doesn’t fight or yell or practice any of the other habits that the Prioleau men use to navigate their lonely world, except rolling and smoking cigarettes. A character later tells him, “You’re the same as everyone. But you think you’re different.”
The difficulty of simply getting to know the characters is in part what gives the whole book the feel of a mystery. That and Ruddock’s ability to feed tiny spoonfuls of information to the reader over hundreds of pages. Yet as the novel progresses, and characters increasingly struggle and fail to share their emotions, it becomes clear that perhaps there will be no conclusion, the mystery will not be revealed in a sudden stroke of genius. And that is both pleasing and disappointing.
Yet, like most literary novels, there is more to enjoy here—or at least more to investigate—than character and plot. Much like Winter’s Bone, Shot-Blue is written in a style that somehow combines an easy-spoken blue collar minimalism with wordplay and lyricism. The oblique, hidden emotions of the characters are balanced in part by the ingenuity and playfulness of Ruddock’s language. She begins the novel:
She hated the narrow dirt mile between their trailer and town. She wanted to erase it the same way she might spit and rub a number off the back of her hand. Rachel didn’t own anything, but it was a lot to carry on soft ground. The mud and gravel road was thawing from the top down. It peeled under her steps like skin off rotten fruit.
The image of the peeling skin is pitch-perfect for the macabre, unexpected, and at times confusing volume that follows the opening page. Like Rachel, the reader is on soft ground, and it’s not always clear when the road will shift beneath our feet.
This is the case when, a third through the book, a jump occurs. Without giving away any more information than you could find on the dust cover, suffice it to say that Rachel is out of the picture. Tristan has aged a few years. The cabin where he and his mother lived is torn down and Tristan must work to support himself. He gets a job at a brand new lodge that caters to a small summer crowd of tourists. With the job, comes an influx of new characters to the novel, the workers who help build and run the place, their families, and those who have come just to earn some extra cash over the summer. Tomasin, a sixteen year old, is sent by her mother for the latter reason.
In keeping with most of the other characters, Tomasin is hard to read. One of her most defining characteristics is her made up use of the word “religious.” The narrator explains, “Religious meant she couldn’t understand and it wasn’t her fault.” Almost every time she interacts with Tristan she calls him “religious.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these two cryptic characters find themselves attracted to each other, and share an odd courtship that, despite their age, reminded me a bit of the childhood romance in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Like the characters in Anderson’s film, Tomasin and Tristan define themselves in stark opposition to those around them, and their quirkiness and (perhaps overly) cutesy names wouldn’t be amiss in one of his films.
It’s never really made clear what Tomasin or Tristan do at the lodge. There are a few scenes of work, for instance when Tristan teaches some city folk how to fly fish, but besides that much of the remainder of the novel occurs outside of working hours, at bonfires and in bunks and staff residences. Tomasin and Tristan chase each other around through the woods, perpetually misreading each other’s intentions and confusing their emotions. There is something beautiful to it, and also something frustrating, which leaves you always wanting a little bit more, from the characters and from the writer.
Toward the end of the novel, Tomasin is swimming in the lake and begins to cry. “She cried,” Ruddock writes, “because nothing had ever felt as it should between her and anyone.” Soon after reading this section, I typed the name “Tomasin” into Google. One result I found listed its meaning as “twin.” The website had little information to back this claim up, and as everywhere else I looked listed it as a variant of “Thomas” I wasn’t sure how much to trust this conclusion. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if Ruddock had known of this—potentially false—meaning as well. “Nothing had ever felt as it should,” Ruddock writes of Tomasin, yet the same is true of Tristan. They make an odd little family, and I found myself hoping towards the end that they would become closer, share their emotions a bit more, if only because it seemed pointless for them to suffer in isolation. But like all summer stories, everything is brought to a hard stop with the coming of autumn.
While Shot-Blue and Winter’s Bone may share some characteristics, this point is where they diverge. Woodrell’s Ree is a strong willed character who undergoes her own personal odyssey and in the end manages to stave off disaster. Winter’s Bone is a novel about determination, and what can happen when one person puts their body and soul into a task. Shot-Blue on the other hand, is a book that explores how it feels when things don’t happen, when you miss all your chances at redemption and don’t know where to turn. It is a novel about absence—of conversation, of love, of family, of connection—and that’s something special in its own way.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.