By Reviewed by Jessica Argyle
"The Outlaw Album"
By Daniel Woodrell
Little Brown, $21.95
'The Outlaw Album" is Daniel Woodrell's first collection of stories after eight novels in 25 years, all of them critically acclaimed.
He is best known for "Winter's Bone," his eighth novel that was made into a film and nominated for four Academy Awards. He lives and writes about the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, novelist Katie Estill.
Daniel lives in the neighborhoods he writes about and in a 2010 interview with Southeast Review, he says that "some of those people get out." But if they do, there's little evidence of it in these pieces.
The unnamed fury of class marks this collection from beginning to end, with concepts like resolution and closure replaced by endurance, obligations of blood, kinship lines.
Outsiders enter at their own risk -- like Jepperson in the opening story, "The Echo of Neighborly Bones," who gets murdered over and over again. "The first time he killed [Jepperson], an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota, he kept to simple Ozark tradition and used a squirrel rifle, bullet to the heart, classic and effective...."
In "Uncle," a young girl injures, then cares for her imbecile uncle, an unrepentant local rapist. It is clear that no outside agency will stop him when he "looked for loners, mostly, and understood that the law here ain't eager to come into our woods after him." It falls to his victim to care for him and decide his fate. Crime, murder, have other names: down home justice; honor killings Ozark style.
Often the locus of the story falls on a single event, a tipping point that drives the character into an abyss, finally recognizing exactly where he lives. "Florianne" is oddly familiar, the kind of story that should have been written long ago. The narrator is every parent whose child was taken without resolution. He re-imagines everyone around him, his entire existence distilled into the moment someone crosses his path, wanders into his store. All are capable, everyone essentially unknowable. This loneliness is somehow linked to breaking the code of the world they live in. "And sometimes I think, were there two of them? Three? How much of our world is in on this?"
These 12 stories are spare; the longest spans 10 pages but despite the brevity the reader never forgets where he is, never really gets comfortable, perhaps because the inhabitants are always on the edge, teetering toward some apocryphal rendezvous with hardship and brutality.
Woodrell writes about the Ozarks with poetic shorthand -- raw, like a backwoods Raymond Carver taken down a notch or two.
Fully alert we follow his tales as Woodrell shines a flashlight deftly leading us along the tangled pathways and secret spots of the Ozarks marked with ancient biblical brutality.
In these short pieces, kinship is not the last house on the block. It is the only house and it's in the woods.
A favorite story of mine in this collection is "Two Things," in which an official representing a young man, an incorrigible thief, makes a plea for him on the basis of his accomplished poetry. Equipped with all the superior knowledge of the fresh, educated class against the unreasoning old and ignorant that are the boy's parents, she "knows something about painting her face. She has done it smashing well." This is one of the least violent yarns where modern notions of redemption come up against the practical reality of the poor. In some ways it is a metaphor for the rest of the book. Cecil, the ageing narrator and father of the boy in question, quietly argues against the healing power of art. On a sagging porch, poetry tangles with hardscrabble reality. "That is nice and interesting I tell her but how come Wilma and me has to pay for this poem all alone? Everybody who looks in it and see their selves ought to pay some back to us."
After reading this powerful collection I am happy to pony up. I plan to return to Woodrell territory for another stay, seeking something I cannot articulate in a setting where everything is seen anew, my own assumptions the first to go.