Like Woody Allen, Daniel Woodrell is one of those people who always has the same things written about him. Where Woody gets the Director in perennial decline except for – ooh, his latest, which is really good, a classic return to form, Daniel gets hugely respected writer from the Ozarks who we expect to cross over and start eating from the big boy’s table any time now. Anyone who has followed Daniel Woodrell’s career for a bit will have seen this played out pretty much from the time Ang Lee brought the novel Woe to Live On to the screen as Ride with the Devil. By the time he published the novel, The Death of Sweet Mister, which garnered deservedly excellent reviews, it was like a kettle with an ill-fitting top – rattling away any time now, any time now, any time now – only for him to remain one of the best kept secrets in gritty off-centre American writing. Then we had Winter’s Bone, a – surprise, surprise – nother excellent novel, adapted for the movies, justly praised, nominated for Oscars and what-have-you – bringing with it more in the way of ‘this is surely Daniel Woodrell’s time to whatever it is people expect to happen’. And now, hopefully capitalising on some of the goodwill engendered by Winter’s Bone (and in the hiatus granted by the long gestation period Woodrell tends to enjoy between novels) we have The Outlaw Album, the first collection of his short stories.
And what beautiful, demented objects the short stories are! Opener ‘The Echo of Neighbourly Bones’, for instance, begins:
‘Once Boshell finally killed his neighbour he couldn’t seem to quit killing him. He killed him again whenever he felt unloved or blue or simply had empty hours facing him.’
Boshell takes his neighbour up into the mountains and hides the body under a pile of stones and basically re-enacts his frustrations upon the corpse. This may sound like a doom-laden piece of horror but it’s actually quite hilarious, ending it does with the jaunty murderer ‘whistling like a child’. Boshell’s murder is an act of vengeance – and more mountain vengeance follows in ‘Uncle’, the story of a man ‘born with a pair of devils in his chest and the one just eggs on the other and neither ever rests’. Uncle is given to attacking pretty female tourists until his niece, the narrator of the story, ‘hoisted that mattocks overhead and slammed down like I was busting the cow pond ice open in winter, so the whole herd could drink’. Reduced to a state of zombification (much like Leo Johnson in Twin Peaks), his niece takes to dressing up the former serial rapist in pretty clothes and enjoying her baby – until she catches a glimpse that the monster still lurks within.
‘It was coming up on Halloween when I first caught my baby’s eyes following me across the room. Then it got to where every time I spun around quick, his eyes were on me, and not on my face neither. Uncle was yet alive inside that big old baby, and his eyes was wanting what babies don’t know about yet.’
It is the expectation of vengeance, the enactment of mountain law, that keeps Morrow, the narrator of ‘Twin Falls’ awake at night.
‘Morrow was down from Nebraska, escaping fresh memories by chasing after old ones, looking for something that might spark his blood awake, make it hop lively in his veins again.’
As the new proprietor of Twin Forks Store and Campground, however, he unfortunately gets on the wrong side of the locals, earning advice from the sheriff of the ‘You should’ve shot him while you could do it legal and get it over with’ variety.
Woodrell’s stories are populated by mountain folk, for the most part, people who have grown up in a community alien to the most of us (‘Black Step’, for instance, largely concerns a cow blown into the arms of a sideways sycamore tree ‘halfway down the cliff that grew straight out from the face for about ten feet’) , or outliers coming to terms with the changes in their surroundings (a terrific story called ‘Night Stand’ concerns a man called Pelham who wakes to find a shivering naked youth at the foot of his bed, a damaged young man just returned from war, who Pelham kills). The writing is sumptuous, the imagery profound, the narrative arcs oblique, thoughtful and challenging. Fans of Denis Johnson in particular should be making a bee-line for Woodrell.
The only real problem that faces you as a Woodrell fan is still unfortunately tracking down some of the books. ‘Woe to Live On’, a short story here, includes excerpts from the novel of the same name which – unless you’re willing to part with £80 or so on Amazon – remains frustratingly out of reach. Similarly the acclaimed country noir, Give Us a Kiss. It’s a problem that is being addressed – Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do have been reissued as The Bayou Trilogy and hopefully the others are not far behind.
Any Cop?: If you’re new to Daniel Woodrell, this is as good a place to start as any. It’s a terrific collection of obtuse stories and a brilliant primer for the Woodrell experience best typified by Winter’s Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister.