I've got a literary crush on Daniel Woodrell, who's the author of Winter's Bone and once lived right here in Johnson County, Kansas, before settling back down in his ancestral home in the Missouri Ozarks near the Arkansas border.
Mr. Woodrell first launched his writing career as a crime novelist with his haunting and gritty Bayou Trilogy featuring Detective Rene Shade in the Louisiana swamp town of Saint Bruno, a place where "tempers went on the prowl and relief was driving a hard bargain." Soon after came Woe to Live On , which was adapted into the Ang Lee filmRide With the Devil and explores the dark and twisty undertones of Quantrill's Bushwhackers and their raid on Lawrence, KS. Winter's Bone is one of his most recent works, and familiar as the inspiration for the film that was a multiple Oscar contender in 2010.
Curious to see what Daniel Woodrell had been up to since Winter's Bone, I cracked open his newest book, The Outlaw Album , a collection of short stories set in his ancestral home of the Missouri Ozarks.
To characterize Woodrell's work just as tough and gritty would be to miss out on some of its finer nuances. Following in the footsteps of other southern gothic writers like Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner and Cormac Carthy, Daniel Woodrell knows a thing or two about how to turn a sentence. His work is infused with eerie dreamlike enigmas, a quality that really shines through in the short story format. In one of my favorites from the collection, "Night Stand," a Vietnam war vet named Pelham is attacked by an intruder and defends himself with a knife that mysteriously appears on his nightstand. The intruder is killed, and for the rest of the story the question gnaws at Pelham: how'd he get that knife? He never solves the mystery, but instead becomes obsessed with his deceased attacker.
The other stories in the collection are equally tragic with fabulous first sentences: "Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn't seem to quit killing him." "Morrow wondered if he might soon die because of a beautiful girl from his teens he'd never had the nerve to approach." "My brother left no footprints as he fled."
Most of the characters who populate The Outlaw Album are unfussy tough guys who don't suffer fools: handy with shotguns, suspicious of fancy outsiders. But a few have softer sides: the convict with a surprise gift for poetry. The army private who processes difficult emotions by creating fantastical paintings (of cows). The girl with penny-colored hair who wears swan-winged glasses and a crinkled black dress, and whose "words put special color to events." There's beauty and humor to be sniffed out from tragic passages.
In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Woodrell has said that he likes to write about people who are easy to dislike; he wants to coax the reader into caring about somebody she or he wouldn't usually care about. These are the characters of The Outlaw Album, and if you look closely, you'll glimpse their redemption -- writ however quiet or small.