Country Noir 101


Court Merrigan defines the literary genre of “country noir,” which is all about “the small, the local, the defiant and the defeated”:

Over and against the overweening hubris of the American Dream, country noir looks to the broken-down farmhouse, abandoned in a pasture, with its dreams long gone and broken. It flips the bird to social conscience, ideology and utopian hopes, turns to the bar for another red beer, contemplating the tottering of social order against the meth epidemic, the plight of returned veterans abandoned by their country, the fate of fugitives. There is no epic sweep to these stories, no recourse to a mythology which sweeps us all along to a manifest destiny.

Country noir occurs beyond the aegis of the city and the suburbs. Its rural settings bring the actions and characters into sharp relief, stripping away social context and revealing its humans as naked, trembling, and very horribly fallible. Eschewing social commentary and symbolism, country noir prefers to dwell in the more homely environs of story.

No crusaders appear. Characters may be victims, passive or flailing, of vicious social circumstance, but while there may be a good deal of awareness of the haves, they will remain have-nots. The swindling Bible salesmen in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” for instance, certainly has some idea what he’s missing out in the pleasant homes he visits. Many lives in country noir works are worn out over amounts of money that would be beneath the notice of the prosperous; from Rueben Bourne accidentally murdering his son in the wilderness after going broke in Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Roger Malvin’s Burial” to the unnamed fugitive in Scott Wolven’s “Atomic Supernova” eking out a living in the Nevada badlands recycling metal and running drugs, the characters of country noir works are generally not economic winners.

(Image: Genealogy of country noir via Electric Literature)