Review by Dennis Kempton
Perhaps with the accumulation of years, my ability to sit and digest entire novels is escaping my grasp. It’s difficult for me to put them down once I get started, though. That’s why I tend to gravitate toward collections of short stories. I can read a couple, rest easy about putting the book down for the night, and then move on to the next when time permits.
This formula works, except for when it came to picking up The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. The author’s collection of gritty short stories set in the Ozarks is an outstanding uncomfortable journey down into the depths of love, hate, neighborly conflict, and the ties that bind, sometimes too tightly for comfort. I couldn’t put it down after the first selection and by the time the sun came up, I sat bleary-eyed, but satisfied. Woodrell’s prose is chilling, but satisfying in a way that modern literature rarely seems to be. It is cathartic in the way that we can live out revenge and Woodrell’s “country noir” genre on the page without the nagging real life complications it brings.
“Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor, he couldn’t seem to quit killing him. He killed him again whenever he felt unloved or blue or simply had empty hours facing him,” begins the first story, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones.” See? This is what I’m talking about. With solid hooks like these opening sentences, how could you not want to read what’s next, and next and next? Woodrell, once an unknown until Winter’s Bone was released on the silver screen as an adaptation of his well-executed novel, is gaining currency as a writer to be reexamined. This collection of twelve stories, some of them previously published, and some can be found just as easily on the Internet, is a chance to catch up.
Whether the narrator is in third person or first, Woodrell takes his tales’ color and character from Missouri’s dark backwater of poverty, the Ozarks, where he still lives. Mixed at times with biting and inappropriately delicious humor, there are also real moments of implied terror in the words, leading the mind to wander off into that “What if this shit happened to me?” territory where we don’t like to linger for long. In what I consider the collection’s most arresting story, “Twin Forks”, a man from Nebraska arrives in town to set up business in a shop and campground he purchases only to be terrorized by an unstable duo of meth users and their equally undesirable girlfriends who take off into the night when the sheriff is called, lingering in the darkness, never knowing when they’ll turn up again. He’s left only with the dire threat, “I’ma cut you up’n down for cussin’ me in front of bitches.”
The book’s second selection, “Uncle” remains my favorite. It begins, masterfully, “A cradle won’t hold my baby. My baby is two hundred pounds in a wheelchair and hard to push uphill but silent all the time. He can’t talk since his head got hurt, which I did to him.” An injustice is met with swift action, with the consequences being a burden to carry forever by the avenger, in this story of vigilante justice. It’s a challenge not to dredge up comparisons to Deliverance in these stories and Woodrell lives up to his reputation as being, quite possibly, the bee in the bonnet of the Ozarks tourism board.
The author’s vocabulary, pacing, and visual acuity thrust forward from the page into the reader’s mind is a singular achievement here and not at variance with Woodrell’s previous works in tone and power. The language is always poetic, but hard like stone. The details provide pungent mist and the unshakable patina of unbridled base instinct–the kind we, in polite society, have relegated far back into the reptilian recesses of our natures.
These twelve selections are brutal cuts of life, dangling on the hooks of unforgiving sharp tale-weaving talent. For those of you familiar with Woodrell’s work, bear in mind that he only publishes new work about every five years. Pick up this collection and experience the haunting back woods creepiness that is defining the author as a modern day Poe.
THE OUTLAW ALBUM. DANIEL WOODRELL. 176 pp. PUBLISHER: LITTLE, BROWN.