I’m pretty sure if I rooted around in Daniel Woodrell’s septic tank I’d find fucking gold, as in “dude fucking shits the stuff.” The Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red? Fucking amazing pieces of fiction all. The guy just doesn’t know how to write a sentence that isn’t awe-inspiring or a tell a story that doesn’t grab you by the balls fucking immediately. For twelve fun-sized (Halloween wasn’t that long ago so I feel mildly justified) examples of his uncompromising badassery, pick up The Outlaw Album, Woodrell’s first short story collection.
The collection opens with “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” about a good ol’ boy who kills his yuppie Northerner neighbor and finds that beating up on the corpse continues to give him pleasure, and closes with “Returning the River,” in which a screw-up son burns down his ailing father’s neighbor’s house so his dad can look upon the river once again for his few remaining days. These two stories, about men trying to hold onto the old ways, their pasts both remembered and passed down, in the face of change, exemplify some of the themes but also the range of this hugely satisfying collection. “Echo” is darkly comic and filled with noble ignorance while “River” is sad but also oddly redemptive and triumphant, a kind of low-key version of the final shoot-out in The Wild Bunch.
Between those fantastic bookends are ten more fucking beauts of storytelling. “Uncle” finds a girl taking care of her rapist uncle like her own child after a head-injury leaves him gentle as a lamb. “Twin Forks” tells of a man returning to the Ozarks after years away and making up for a childhood puss-out with a macho stand against some methed-out thugs. “Florianne” describes the daily torment of a shopkeeper whose daughter disappeared years ago, the man suspecting that any one of his smiling customers could have been her captor and killer. “Black Step” brings us into the world of a veteran letting life wash over him on his mother’s farm. “Night Stand” opens with a man’s seemingly justified killing of a naked man who broke into his bedroom, with evidence revealed after the fact plaguing him with questions of the attacker’s motives.
“Two Things” lets us into the head of a man unwilling to accept that his thieving son’s brilliant poetry is anything other than another in a long line of cons the boy’s pulling on the social worker trying to help him get early parole. “The Horse In Our History” transcribes the varying accounts of different players surrounding a decades old murder, the reasons behind which are murkier than we ever imagined. “The Woe To Live On” deals with a former Civil War bushwhacker inability to understand his son’s views on the war brewing overseas in 1916. “Dream Spot” is a long-time-coming domestic argument that turns tragic in the most bleakly hilarious way. “One United” drops us into the frazzled brain of a crazy woman whose manipulative boyfriend enlists her help in muscling an honest family.
One the best prose writers line for line, each sentence managing to astound while never seeming too fancy or “writerly,” The Outlaw Album is a chance to see twelve different voices made flesh then burned into your soul in short bursts. And though I am undeniably partial to novels (Bring on the disgust, online crime fiction community!) and particularly, you know, Woodrell’s novels in general, The Outlaw Album shows just how well-suited many of the author’s gifts are for the short story. Basically, if you’re already a fan of Woodrell’s work, you were never gonna miss this one anyway, and if you’re somehow unfamiliar with him, The Outlaw Album is a great way to get acquainted. Just be prepared, Woodrell virgins, to seriously consider going through the guy’s septic tank…