Several months ago, I reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and received an unusual number of responses from readers. In general, the responses were positive. However, there were a few readers who found Woodrell’s description of Appalachian (Ozark) culture distorted and misguided. However, others defended Woodrell’s descriptions of Appalachian life in Winter’s Bone as painfully accurate. A few spoke with some bitterness about their experiences as “newcomers.” At length, the whole debate wound down, but it is by no means resolved.
Now comes a new work by Woodrell, a collection of twelve short stories entitled The Outlaw Album. Like many fans of this author, I had thought that Winter’s Bone, despite the bleakness of Ree Dolly’s life, contained a powerful redemptive theme — one that suggested that this teenager would not only survive, but would become the means of saving her family. In effect, there was something innate in Ree Dolly’s genes that would sustain her. She would find a way to keep the land and protect her brothers.
Well, there is nothing in The Outlaw Album that speaks of redemption. These beautifully crafted short stories nestle together like 12 black pearls in a velvet-lined box ... luminous, lethal and uncompromisingly dark. The themes are familiar ones: a conflict with a new neighbor that turns into a murder; a wheel-chair bound serial killer; a campground manager who finds himself in a deadly conflict with a marauding gang; a storeowner, grieving for his missing daughter, and becoming increasingly paranoid as the years pass, wondering if his daughter’s killer is one of his customers. Then, there is the man who sets fire to a real estate development in an attempt to return the land to the way it looked before the developers came. On and on, these spare, dark tales unwind ... each a testament to the infinite variations in the nature of evil. Is it inherited or imported? Is it a random virus or a judgment?
The protagonist of “Black Step,” an Iraqi veteran who has decided to re-enlist, relates the tragic aftermath of his father’s suicide and how his ailing mother painted the back-step black because it was stained with his father’s blood. After a life-time of raising livestock, the Girard farm is failing and is surrounded by new homes and real estate developments. Before leaving, the Iraqi veteran notes that the farm and the family cemetery appears to be sinking out of sight and observes that he “likes graves that disappear.”
“Night Stand” is possibly the most frightening story in this collection. It is narrated by a man named Pelham, who awakes one night to find a naked man standing by his bed growling. Seizing a knife, Pelham stabs the man to death. Belatedly, Pelham learns that the dead man was an ex-Marine (like Pelham). Eventually he comes to feel that he has been manipulated by a deranged man who wanted to commit suicide. In his search to find why the dead man “selected” him, Pelham befriends the victim’s father. As a consequence, both learn a heartbreaking truth.
“Two Things” proves to be possibly the most despairing story in this collection. Essentially, it defines a meeting between a social worker and the father of a boy named Cecil who is up for parole. The social worker has brought a scrapbook filled with Cecil’s “creative works” ... poems and drawings that allegedly bear witness to Cecil’s innate creative talent. The social worker wants the father to speak on behalf of his son, but she learns that Cecil’s family no longer feels that he can be redeemed. The father says, “He ain’t getting no more poems off of us.”
“The Horse in Our History” attempts to reconcile all of the contradictory folklore in a small Texas town regarding a legendary horse, a black jockey and a Afro-American prostitute named Dyna Flo. Was there an historic race? Was the dead man found by the railroad tracks the jockey? Did the town die because Dyna Flo was ostracized? Was Bleu the name of the horse or the owner? Is it possible that the horse never existed and the fabulous tale told by the town folks is merely a desperate effort to keep the past alive by making it colorful?
“Woe to Live On” recounts the history of Coleman Younger, an enigmatic outlaw who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and participated in some of the most horrifying atrocities of the Civil War. Coleman’s biographer, a man named Roedel, attempts to “honor” Younger and his vicious companions by carving driftwood images — a process that he describes as a means “whereby the large is rendered small.” As Roedel whittles and talks about the life of Coleman Younger, we learn that Roedel was a party to some of the war’s most shameful events, including mass executions and scalpings.
Particularly well done is “Dream Spot,” which relates the final episode in the life of a serial killer named Dalrymple and his female companion, Janet. Dalrymple specializes in the murder of hitch-hikers and unsuspecting motorists — that is until this final day when he finds a woman in a long coat standing on a lonely road, a woman who seems to be “predestined” to meet him here on this day.
The character Sleepy in the story “One United” enjoys his job of intimidating a farm family who are scheduled to testify in court. “Do I smell your barn burning?” asks Sleepy as he stands on the farmer’s porch. The frightened family realizes that if they speak out about some of the criminal acts carried out by the banks, they will lose their farm.
I found no stories that could be described as “uplifting and hopeful” in The Outlaw Album. Instead, I found 12 dark fables that provide proof that the world is going to hell. Like Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell not only sees evidence that the world is spiraling into chaos; he believes that we are long past a point where we could reverse the approaching apocalypse. It seems unlikely that there is a significant audience for a message like that.
The Outlaw Album is a paradox: dark and depressing, but beautifully crafted.
The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 168 pages