When I was twelve, my mother, sister, and I took an overnight train to Kansas City, where my great-aunt met and drove us several hours south. Hovering near the border of Missouri and Arkansas, we were in the heart of the Ozarks. Here’s what I remember about them. My family’s private cemetery, near the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather attended and the cabin with a shotgun hole in the roof. The somewhat sad sights of Branson, and an evening trip to see the Osmond Brothers. Lush greenery. The wide expanse of the White River seen from my great-aunt’s home.
Judging from Daniel Woodrell’s fiction, there’s a lot I missed. It would seem, for example, that the Ozarks are no place for people of moderate appetites and emotions. In Woodrell’s superb new collection, The Outlaw Album, characters are fueled by desperation, anger, and (one suspects) a sense of humor either incomparably keen or completely nonexistent. How else could you explain the book’s first sentence, found in a story called “The Echo of Neighborly Bones”?: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” After burying his neighbor in a makeshift grave, this Boshell makes a habit of stopping by whenever he’s feeling blue. Nothing takes the edge off a rough day, or soothes the memory of his wife’s tears, as well as going at the rotting corpse with a heavy stone or a blunt hatchet.
When we eventually learn the reason for the murder — the neighbor killed Boshell’s dog — wit and pathos elide. We’ve anticipated an act of tremendous brutality, and what we find seems relatively petty. But small slights are deeply felt in Woodrell country. They carry life or death stakes. Why not shoot the neighbor? What could be crueler, really, than targeting a childless couple’s beloved pet? In another story, an outsider builds a house directly in the line of sight between a dying man’s window and his cherished river. His son restores the vista as quickly and effectively as he can—with fire—in his father’s final days. As in Woodrell’s earlier novel Winter’s Bone, The Outlaw Album’s hills are filled with methheads and gunfire, but unkindness proves no less explosive a presence.
That’s not to say darker works don’t abound. Woodrell’s characters are capable of terrible things. A driver accelerates at a hitchhiker and sends his car plummeting into a ditch. A Civil War veteran carves driftwood, avoiding both confrontation with and atonement for the murders he committed against civilians. These acts of unmerited violence are sometimes sudden, sometimes forgotten, always contained within a specific moment in time. When the deed is justified, though, it often haunts the perpetrator. When a man wakes up to a naked, growling figure towering over his bed, he reaches for a nearby knife. In the light, the intruder is revealed to be a troubled Iraq veteran, and his killer doubts his actions. He spends nights walking circuits around the house. He becomes a near-pariah in town. And he has one notably awkward, sad conversation with the dead man’s parents outside a diner.
Even amidst his characters’ wildest thoughts and most profound transgressions, however, Woodrell’s prose winks slyly at us. In one of the book’s finest stories, a girl attacks her rapist uncle with a pickaxe, leaving him in a vegetable state. She’s left to care for him while her mother works, and enjoys inflicting small cruelties on her former tormentor. But soon things begin to change. He follows people with his eyes. Once he swats a fly. It’s all too much. The girl sets out to finish the task she started, wheeling him up to a local bridge.
“I’d been making him well,” she thinks, “now I needed to make him right.” Ruefully, savagely, joyfully, she laments in the story’s final line, “My baby ain’t meant for this world.” The character is a triumph. She takes pleasure in administering justice, bringing wit to the unspeakable and a gritty pragmatism to morality. In a book full of memorable characters, this nameless narrator stands out as an unreservedly sharp and funny presence.
All this amounts to one of the best evocations of rural life that I’ve read in years. Woodrell’s characters have a hard time of it, and wealth and education don’t help much. There’s a whole world contained within his Ozarks — several veterans, rich summer-homers, a damaged girl with a mysterious past, an inner-city father whose son is in prison, a nostalgic divorcé from the city — and its dangers affect all of them indiscriminately. Slim and utterly delicious, The Outlaw Album is a quick read and will leave you asking why this is Woodrell’s first collection of stories. Few authors have such a sure and deft hand with reveals. Even fewer combine humor and desperation so effectively.
It becomes clear at a certain point, though, that he was not quite content to deliver a collection of genre pieces, however superlative. There are unexpected moments. “The body fell within a shout of a house that still stands,” begins a story called “The Horse in Our History.” “A house shown up rudely in morning brightness, a dull small box gone shabby along the roof edge, with tar shingles hanging frayed over a gutter that has parted from the eaves and rolled under like a slackened lip.” While Woodrell’s writing is often beautiful — sparse construction and sudden, lush images feature prominently — this passage falls in a different register. It immediately sounds like someone else. I couldn’t place it until I got to the next paragraph: “The body fell within a shout, and surely those in the house must have heard something.” The repetition, the narrative disguised as speculation: Woodrell’s doing Faulkner here and he’s doing it well. Even the somewhat vague but insistent impression of alienness left by the first few sentences testifies to the success of his imitation.
But why do it? It’s a virtuoso performance and a fine story, but Woodrell’s voice is confident and distinct through The Outlaw Album. There seems to be little impetus for Faulknerian digressions. But while The Outlaw Album could stand alone, I think perhaps Woodrell wants you to compare it to the work of the masters. His ventriloquism does more than show off his ability. It demonstrates the power of his own unique voice. It throws into relief the expansiveness and clarity of the place he’s imagined, as well-defined as Faulkner’s own Yoknapatawpha County. It’s the request to be admitted to the pantheon, and with The Outlaw Album as evidence, it’s none too soon.