Randi Tripp has run off to find fame as a singer with $47,000 that Lunch Pumphrey, the local jailbird and hitman, owes to the Tampa mafia. She’s left her elderly husband, John X. Shade to take the rap and to raise their young daughter, Etta. Aware that Lunch is a few morals short of those in the bible, Shade decides to make a run for it, heading to St Bruno, and back to the town he grew up in, and where his former wife and grown up children still live. Shade himself is no saint; an alcoholic, hustler, and womaniser now in his early sixties and becoming all too aware of his frailties, unable to hustle at the pool table due to failing eyesight and the shakes. Back in familiar territory, Shade tries to re-engage with his sons, and hustle by through the hosting of late night poker games with his old buddies, aware that Lunch Pumphrey will stop at nothing to get his money back.
Woodrell says that he writes ‘country noir’ and using the definition provided by Donna Moore over at Big Beats from Badsville, The Ones You Do is most definitely noir. The title refers to a line delivered by Lunch, who having slept with a husband’s wife tells him that one never regrets the ones you do, but the ones you don’t. It’s a moral line that John X. Shade has adhered to all his life, drifting from one man’s woman to another, using his natural charm to coax them into bed. The moral ambiguities of life is a theme that Woodrell examines with some skill, exploring their enactment and consequences, sometimes played out over many years. His prose is taut, economical and lyrical, and the plot and dialogue realistic, but what really sets Woodrell apart is his characterisation, which is superb. Indeed, what makes The Ones You Do work so well is that rather than tell the story from the perspective of one person, the story spends time with each character, their personality and history, and the complex relationships between them. As I noted on Saturday, reading Woodrell is like sucking down a cold beer on a humid, hot afternoon, and comes highly recommended. My review of Winter’s Bone here. I've two more Woodrell books on the TBR pile and they've been shuffled nearer to the top.