Book Review: The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

I haven’t read Winter’s Bone. Neither have I seen the film. But I took a small chance one day when I purchased a copy of Woodrell’s short story collection for only a dollar. I came away with something worth more.

The Outlaw Album is indeed an album of sorts, a collection of stories that all somehow involve Ozark natives wrapped up in weird, if not illegal, situations. Our people are odd, but realistic portrayals of humanity torn by desperation and haunted by decisions past, present and future. All of them are disturbing. Some of them have a touch of grace. In a quagmire of inspirations from the meditations on mercy from O’Connor to the regional fictions of Faulkner to the criminally disturbed populations of Burke, our stories share the same psychological landscape (some of them share the same county).

Each of the characters is as capable of immense tenderness and immense wrath. They are as unpredictable as the American backyard of criminals, runaways and psychotics—but never the horrific extremity of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Echo of Neighborly Bones” opens our anthology mildly—if that’s the right word—with the death of a family pet and a quest for vengeance. A girl takes on the bizarre and inexplicable chore of caring for the mentally disabled man who raped her in “Uncle.” The short piece “Florianne” is an understandably paranoid meditation on the woe of wishing to find the murder of one’s beloved. Both “Black Step” and “Night Stand” give us characters damaged by trauma and tainted with the touch of blood and animosity that come with. What happens when a troubled child from nowhere becomes a famous poet? “Two Things” is a peek into a sore family member’s response. An entire town tells the story of itself through the conflicting accounts of a single beast in “The Horse in Our History.” “Dream Spot” takes us on a wild, yet familiar ride that we know won’t end well—we just don’t know how.

That’s the thing about Woodrell’s stories. Sometimes they seem familiar tropes, but he twists them like a gnarled tree into something grotesque and beautiful. His craft is not rule-breakingly original, but the yarns he draws out are one-of-a-kind.

Not every story is a winner in my book, but they all stand on their own as dark, devious, and somehow delightful. Woodrell’s prose is experimental, but accessible, and it mirrors the tormented depth and beauty of both the deep woods and the character we encounter.

I know feel an ache to read Winter’s Bone.

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