Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Outlaw Album (Book Review)

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) has long since established himself as a preeminent novelist, but with his first collection he also proves a master of the short story.  The Outlaw Album hooks the reader right from the opening line of its lead-off story ("Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn't seem to quit killing him") and doesn't let go until the close of its final paragraph. 

The collection is aptly titled, given that the stories brim with criminal and antisocial figures--rough, earthy folk who effuse menace with the briefest bit of dialogue ("Man, I'm digging your hole already in my head") or the merest hint of aggression ("Sleepy clomps down the steps and into the yard, suddenly stops, goes on high alert, raises his nose, and takes several big sniffs of the air. 'Is that your barn burnin'?'").  Take note, though: these are not stock grotesques or caricatures of American Gothicism.  With his incredible knack for conveying character, Woodrell transforms initially frightful people (e.g. a naked, growling man looming over a sleeping couple's bed; a young girl who torments her brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound uncle) into deserving objects of readerly sympathy.

No less fitting is the "album" portion of the volume's title.  Woodrell's gathered stories form verbal portraits, capturing people and scenes in select moments of time.  The author brings the rural Missouri world to life via precise and vivid imagery ("There'd been three nights of freeze, and the mud had stiffened until the sloped field lay as hard as any slant road.  Morning light met rime on the furrows and laid a shine between rows of cornstalks cut to winter spikes.").  And as in photographs, there's a strong sense here of a wider context, a greater surround.  No surprise then, that a 25-page epic like "Woe to Live On" has subsequently been expanded to novel length (a book, in turn, that forms the basis for the film Ride with the Devil).

If you are shopping for a bibliophile this Christmas, you can choose no better gift than this collection of twelve stellar pieces.  The Outlaw Album is an absolute chart-topper, and will leave you eagerly awaiting Woodrell's next release.

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