Grit lit is a hard term to pin down. Is it literature that is gritty? Is it exclusively southern? Modern? Gothic? Hillbilly noir? A novel filled with hard-drinking, punch-throwing, snake-oil selling men and women? By definition it seems undefinable – a “know it when you read it” kind of experience. There’s even an anthology (featuring both non-fiction and fiction) devoted to the exploration of the term (Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin). And according to Franklin, it’s not difficult to understand – it’s people using “weed and pills and sometimes meth. They’re usually white, usually rednecks, Snopesian. Broke, divorced, violent – they’re not good country people.”
With that in mind, but not the defining factor (it’s literature, there’s always wiggle room), here are some of my favorite novels that I’d consider grit lit/southern gothic/hillbilly noir/a know it when you read it experience.
The Devil All the Time // Donald Ray Pollock (review). “Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrificial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial killers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.”
Donnybrook // Frank Bill (review). “The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers–drunk and high on whatever’s on offer–bet on the fighters.”
Bull Mountain // Brian Panowich. “Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations, the Burroughs clan has made its home on Bull Mountain in North Georgia, running shine, pot, and meth over six state lines, virtually untouched by the rule of law. To distance himself from his family’s criminal empire, Clayton took the job of sheriff in a neighboring community to keep what peace he can. But when a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shows up at Clayton’s office with a plan to shut down the mountain, his hidden agenda will pit brother against brother, test loyalties, and could lead Clayton down a path to self-destruction.”
The Shore // Sara Taylor. “Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . .”
Cry Father //Benjamin Whitmer (review). “For Patterson Wells, disaster is the norm. Working alongside dangerous, desperate, itinerant men as a tree clearer in disaster zones, he’s still dealing with the loss of his young son. Writing letters to the boy offers some solace. The bottle gives more. Upon a return trip to Colorado, Patterson stops to go fishing with an old acquaintance, only to find him in a meth-induced delirium and keeping a woman tied up in the bathtub. In the ensuing chain of events, which will test not only his future but his past, Patterson tries to do the right thing. Still, in the lives of those he knows, violence and justice have made of each other strange, intoxicating bedfellows.”
Bastard Out of Carolina // Dorothy Allison. “Greenville County, South Carolina, a wild, lush place, is home to the Boatwright family—rough-hewn men who drink hard and shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who marry young and age all too quickly. At the heart of this astonishing novel is Ruth Anne Boatwright, known simply as Bone, a South Carolina bastard with an annotated birth certificate to tell the tale.”
Edge of Dark Water // Joe R. Lansdale (review). “May Lynn was once a pretty girl who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star. Now she’s dead, her body dredged up from the Sabine River. Sue Ellen, May Lynn’s strong-willed teenage friend, sets out to dig up May Lynn’s body, burn it to ash, and take those ashes to Hollywood to spread around. If May Lynn can’t become a star, then at least her ashes will end up in the land of her dreams. Along with her friends Terry and Jinx and her alcoholic mother, Sue Ellen steals a raft and heads downriver to carry May Lynn’s remains to Hollywood. Only problem is, Sue Ellen has some stolen money that her enemies will do anything to get back. And what looks like a prime opportunity to escape from a worthless life will instead lead to disastrous consequences. In the end, Sue Ellen will learn a harsh lesson on just how hard growing up can really be.”
Deliverance // James Dickey (review). Sort of early grit-lit… “The setting is the Georgia wilderness, where the states most remote white-water river awaits. In the thundering froth of that river, in its echoing stone canyons, four men on a canoe trip discover a freedom and exhilaration beyond compare. And then, in a moment of horror, the adventure turns into a struggle for survival as one man becomes a human hunter who is offered his own harrowing deliverance.”
Young God // Katherine Faw Morris (review). Meet Nikki, the most determined young woman in the North Carolina hills. Determined not to let deadbeats and dropouts set her future. Determined to use whatever tools she can get her hands on to shape the world to her will. Determined to preserve her family’s domination of the local drug trade. Nikki is thirteen years old.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter // Tom Franklin. In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. See my review of Hell at the Breech.
Winter’s Bone // Daniel Woodrell (review). The sheriff’s deputy at the front door brings hard news to Ree Dolly. Her father has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab, and the Dollys will lose their house if he doesn’t show up for his next court date.
So many more people belong on this list: Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, and Larry Brown, just to name a few. Do you enjoy grit lit? Or is it a genre you stay away from? If you love it like I do, what books do you recommend? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve pushed The Devil All the Time on to unsuspecting readers….