Violence represented in literature can be compelling and evocative, but it is always morally problematic. The reader cannot be an innocent spectator: by imagining the act, he or she becomes an accomplice. Daniel Woodrell, a native of the Missouri Ozarks, uses this complicity to profound effect in “The Outlaw Album,” his new collection of short stories. His project is simple: to communicate a detailed, visceral experience of the contemporary Ozarks—their people, their past, their problems, and their often frightening propensity for acts of extreme violence. He does not seek to condemn or to offer grotesque stereotypes of southern cavemen. Rather, he immerses us in a complex and ambiguous rural world, where we can come to sympathize with—and perhaps even understand—his vicious characters. When successful, the stories are unsettling and compassionate in equally vast proportions. When they fail, Woodrell’s constant harping on the place of violence in Ozark culture seems contrived and lurid. But for better or for worse, the stories are consistently involving. Woodrell’s short fiction cuts deep, and neither heart nor stomach can remain unscathed.
The collection begins with a line that seems to describe the book as well as its first protagonist: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” Like Boshell, Woodrell just can’t shake his preoccupation with violence.This story, titled “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” presents a situation that seems ethically unambiguous. Boshell has killed his neighbor for killing Boshell’s dog, and now he keeps returning to the neighbor’s corpse to punish it for his own daily woes. However, the narration of the story continually confounds an immediate moral response by introducing, through sympathy, a creeping moral doubt. Boshell comforts his bawling wife over the lost dog, and he has a dark and delightful sense of humor. His act is still monstrous, but he evokes more sympathy than he initially seems to deserve. He is not a monster, but rather the executor of a very particular moral code, one that prizes destructive revenge as the instrument of justice.
The situations become even more convoluted and unclear in the subsequent stories. Woodrell introduces past trauma, unreliable consciousness, the ubiquitous bottle of bourbon, and the sinister whisper of methamphetamine, any of which may be roiling behind a character’s eyes at any time. “Black Step,” perhaps the strongest in the collection, follows a war veteran back from “the desert” as he reflects on his euthanization of a cow, pitifully caught in a tree that hangs out from a cliff. He interacts normally with his friends and his lover, and he cares for his mother’s cows, but as soon as he begins to paint for recreation, old wounds open anew. “They told me maybe I should paint,” he explains, “take up painting landscapes or portraits, something soothing, but whenever I try the picture explodes on me, the light of day shatters, the humans don’t look too human, and strange patterns span the sky.” Post-traumatic stress lurks in many of Woodrell’s male characters, whether the conflict in question is Iraq, Vietnam, or even, in the historical “Woe to Live On,” the American Civil War.
Grounding this psychological excess is a whirl of concrete details and referents. This is where Woodrell’s craftsmanship becomes most distinct, and where his intimate familiarity with the Ozarks is most obvious. In “Twin Forks,” Woodrell describes a character’s return to his campground on a May morning: “There would be coffee boiling over freshened campfires, bacon sizzling, trout split and dropped into the grease, and as he passed the earliest to rise he’d wave and they’d wave back. He’d open the store early, skin numbed by the river and feeling tightened ten years younger, the smell of the outdoors drying into his hair.” One rarely gets a discrete sense of space in these stories, but there is little need when place is so exhaustively drawn.
Woodrell is not always capable of maintaining a balance between his plausible world of concrete details and the horrifying peaks of his emotional excess. When his melodrama bleeds into his sharp descriptions of the Ozarks, he dilutes his stories’ realism for no good reason. Elsewhere in “Twin Forks,” families at the campground fight over picnic tables that are riddled with bullet holes because they want “the rights to that exotic detail.” In this scene, Woodrell draws these families with very simple and thick lines, repeatedly insisting that violence holds a special fascination for this culture. What results is a dubious, even ridiculous situation that reads more like satire than literary realism: it is one of few exceptions to Woodrell’s captivating specificity.
The last act in “The Outlaw Album” is, unsurprisingly, two criminal brothers’ jubilant escape into the woods. One has burned down a neighbor’s house to allow his father to die with a view of the river, and the other is along for the ride. Even when Woodrell highlights the cruelty and suffering of his native region, he understands that there is hope, even if it is just the hope of the outlaw before the cops catch up.
—Staff writer Patrick W. Lauppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.