A great film adaptation is the best kind of publicity for an author, and the prolific Daniel Woodrell has certainly seen his profile rise following the success of last year's Winter's Bone, a powerful rendering of his 2006 novel (and a finer interpretation than Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee's 1999 take on Woodrell's Woe to Live On). The Outlaw Album, Woodrell's just-released first collection of short stories, digs deeper still into the cinematic grit of contemporary Ozarks life, should the Coen brothers or Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn have any interest. The loaded grumblings and dismally descriptive names of Woodrell's characters — Shuggie, Thigpen, Shade, to mention just a few — feel destined for the big screen.
There's a hardiness to Woodrell's backwoods community of murderers, veterans, addicts, and youths. His characters seem never to have to look away in fear or disgust from anything. In "Florianne," a father mourns his teenage daughter, who is mysteriously snatched while mowing the church lawn. In his rage, the father imagines the worst and confronts it head-on. "Should I grab him now while he's handy," he says of the man he hysterically, falsely identifies as her killer, "and beat on him 'till he tells me where I can rake her bones together?" More explicitly, Boshell, the bitter protagonist of the book's opening and most gruesome story, "The Echo of Neighborly Bones," keeps inflicting a new death upon the corpse of a man he has already killed.
Revenge, like Boshell's, is one of the primal forces at play in Woodrell's collection, and although it's almost always served cold, it is, at times, sweet. The serial-rapist title character in "Uncle" is punished by his niece, a stoic young woman who shares a kinship with Ree, the shrewd heroine of Winter's Bone. The girl creeps up on him after he's committed one of his crimes and plants a pickax in his back, like, she says, "I was busting the cow pond ice open in winter, so the whole herd could drink." For some, revenge (or arson, or mere intimidation) is a fine supplement to happiness; others find their bliss in substance abuse or, like the father in "Black Step," a never-ending cycle of coffee and whiskey.
Woodrell, a marine veteran, movingly explores the aftermath of military service in several of his stories, including the standout "Black Step." Recently home from a tour of duty, and watching a movie with a woman he doesn't particularly like, Darden notes bitterly how the hero of the film "dodged bullets slower than pigeons and cracked wise at death." The woman's casual indifference to Darden's state of mind echoes the apathy of Jill, the wife of a Vietnam vet named Pelham, in "Night Stand." Pelham describes his wife as "patient," but after a harrowing incident involving the couple and a troubled young Iraq War veteran, Jill feels the need to ask her husband why he'd enlisted to fight in Vietnam. He answers, in a way, by stripping off all his clothes and wandering around their yard, growling.
In The Outlaw Album, any glimmers of hope come with caveats. In "Twin Forks," a man named Morrow buys up a riverside campground he visited as a child, attempting to escape "fresh memories by chasing after old ones" — in particular, a girl from his adolescence he never had the guts to talk to. His remembrance of the girl is among the book's most beautiful passages, but the reverie is soon enough shattered by the gun-toting meth heads who now populate the campground. The hopeless Darden, meanwhile, has a champion in his mother, whose understanding of his post-war inertia is being wrested from him by the cancer that now "prowl[s] her body." When he tells her he "just don't care to make big decisions anymore," she sympathetically points out that that, in itself, is a decision. When he proposes that they at least "act happy," she encouragingly replies, "That's another." It's not much, but it's a start.