The Outlaw Album: Stories
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
176 pp., $24.99
J. Mark Bertrand
The Outlaw Album
"How much of our world is in on this?"
That's the question posed by the narrator in "Florianne," one of the twelve stories in Daniel Woodrell's first collection, The Outlaw Album. The narrator is a small-town shopkeeper whose teenage daughter went missing more than a decade ago. While her body was never discovered, he's convinced she was murdered. What's more, he believes the killer was someone he knows, a member of the community. He carries the knowledge like a man let in on an awful secret, suspecting everyone in turn, even his closest friends. Even a customer's benign smile is enough to make him wonder. Is this the killer gloating over him? This is a story of lost innocence—not the daughter's but the father's. Through his eyes, the whole world appears complicit.
The Outlaw Album is full of such men, in thrall not so much to moral dilemmas as to brooding existential preoccupations—hard experience has knocked them loose from a fringe existence that was dislocated to begin with. Such is the fate of many in the Ozark region Woodrell made famous in his 2006 novel Winter's Bone, the basis for Debra Granik's award-winning movie. It's a world of shell-shocked veterans, the cancerous old, and the mentally disturbed, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and God-fearing men take leave of their lost property by riddling it full of bullet holes.
Morrow, an outside observer in the story "Twin Forks," finds the eccentricities to his liking:
The locals who came in were often people of a kind he hadn't truly believed still existed but found rewarding to meet: pioneer-lean old men who poached deer whenever hungry and wouldn't pay taxes, their wives wearing gray braids and cowboy hats, clasp knives sheathed at their belts; men with the beards of prophets who read the Bible at a certain slant and could build anything, their women smelling of lavender, in gingham and work boots; folks living hidden in the hills and only reluctantly coming into contact with the conventional world for want of baby formula or headache powders. A few of these customers lingered to chat, but most said all they had to say with a slow nod hello and a jerk of the chin on the way out.
What makes these people interesting isn't their otherness. It's the way they combine what we once were with what we have become. And their stories illustrate how crime fiction has changed, concerned more now with the consequences of the mystery than its solution.
In "Night Stand," for example, a Vietnam vet named Pelham awakes to find a naked, growling man looming over his bed. He kills him in self-defense only to discover that the dead man is himself a recently-returned vet, the son of one of Pelham's childhood friends. Stemming as it does from his fractured mind, the mystery of how he came to be in Pelham's bedroom can never be solved, only pondered. In time Pelham comes to identify with the man he's killed. He goes so far as to post his own boot camp picture side by side with the dead man's on his fridge. They are doppelgangers and it comes as no surprise to find Pelham at the end of the tale stripped and growling.
Darden in "Black Step" is another of Woodrell's returned vets, home for an interval between deployments. He occupies another interval, too: between life and death. Swimming in the river, he dives down and clings to the bottom:
I held and held to the rock and forgot about breathing, sunk into that choice spot between breathing and not ever breathing, between raising up to walk on the bank and picnic or staying under to join that debris already lost to the rushing.
Darden has come home to ruin. Reunited with old friends, making love to his new fiancée, he feels nothing but acts the part. When he and his mother, who is dying of cancer, team up to dispose of the carcass of a rotting cow, he learns that his fiancÉe's true interest is not in him but in his death benefit. The end is before him and behind him, inescapable.
It seems every review of Woodrell these days includes the admonition that more people should be reading him. And they should. Since the success of Winter's Bone, there's more Woodrell to read. In addition to The Outlaw Album, a collection of three early crime novels was published last year as The Bayou Trilogy, making it onto President Obama's summer reading list. Those books are set in Louisiana, though, while it's the Ozarks that Woodrell has made his own.
The region's peculiar mix of pride and anxiety is apparent in the album's final cut, "Restoring the River," in which one brother torches an outsider's house for obstructing his dying father's view of the river while the other brother aids and abets. When the police try to follow them into the woods they know so well, the brothers laugh and disappear "into a small stand of pine trees and the knowing shadow they laid over us, our history, our trespassing boots." But in The Outlaw Album, we are the trespassers, glimpsing through windows the lives of people who are not at all and very much like us.
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of three novels featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March: Back on Murder (2010), Pattern of Wounds (2011), and—just published—Nothing to Hide. He writes about crime fiction at crimegenre.com.
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