Charged with violence

The Outlaw Album is the first book I’ve read by Daniel Woodrell, recommended to me by a colleague in my book world. Woodrell has published eight novels and is best known for Winter’s Bone, which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie. Speaking of Winter’s Bone, Denise Hamilton wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If William Faulkner lived in the Ozark Mountains today … he might sound a lot like Daniel Woodrell.” More recent authors Woodrell might be aligned with are Carolyn Chute and Donald Ray Pollock, writers who’ve likewise pulled back the curtain on America’s rural cultures.

In Woodrell’s world in The Outlaw Album, we get Missouri’s Ozark version of Deliverance country, where “folks living hidden in the hills” function according to their own rules of family, survival and justice. While those rules in our world equate to criminal behavior, in theirs it makes sense, from burning down an outsider’s house blocking a river view to purposely swerving the car to hit a hitchhiker. It’s to Woodrell’s credit that we read with an understanding of what drives these characters into their misguided reasons. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we accept their logic, but we get it.

All you have to do is read the first story, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” and you’ll know what I mean. It’s about a man named Boshell who kills his neighbor to avenge the death of his wife’s beloved dog. This neighbor, Jepperson, is “an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota,” who disparages Boshell and his kind, calling them “you people.”  He threatens to kill the dog, without any notion of being neighborly, because it’s going after his guinea hens. When the dog turns up dead, Boshell “kept to simple Ozark tradition and used a squirrel rifle.” He hides Jepperson’s body deep in the woods, territory once inhabited by Boshell’s family before the government annexed it for the National Forest; however, that’s after he’s kicked and stabbed Jepperson’s already dead body over and over and over again to feel better about all the things that go wrong for him.

Woodrell describes his Ozark characters as “these untamed people who shot at things to so plainly announce their sorrow.”  They turn to violence for the most minor of reasons, one because a campground store owner was “cussin’ me in front of bitches.” They seek their own justice because the law “ain’t eager to come into our woods,” such as the girl who bashes her uncle’s head after he’s raped yet another Ozark tourist. Only, her uncle doesn’t die, and she becomes his cruel caretaker.

This may sound like bleak reading, but I didn’t find it to be bleak or off-putting at all. Some of the violence is difficult, but it’s tempered by Woodrell’s compassion for his characters. His knowing, sympathetic approach allows us to open ourselves to a poor, violently wired group of people who are a product of what life has given them in an isolated environment of steep hillsides, rock bluffs, thick forests and clear, rumbling rivers. Violence is not so much a choice as something they’re driven to: a viable option and their easy button.

The stories explore issues of prejudice, families with deep secrets and false heroes, frustrated love and the nature of violence bred into one’s soul. They show us that behind our densely populated urban and suburban worlds lie rural, backwoods cultures whose inhabitants deserve to be acknowledged. In the Ozarks, even if we don’t see them, they see us, “foreigners” building vacation homes and blithely bringing camping gear, canoes, swimming tubes and fishing rods into their backyards. In this beautifully written collection, one learns a pretty important rule to keep in mind — it’s best to be neighborly.