Monday, October 31, 2011

The Stark Terrain of "The Outlaw Album"

The reader's introduction to any of Daniel Woodrell's stories is a clang of doom. "Morrow wondered if he might soon die because of a beautiful girl from his teens he'd never had the nerve to approach." This is typical of opening sentences in Woodrell’s short story collection The Outlaw Album. Non-decisions have just as much impact as bad ones. A horrifying combination of despair and accident exists in his characters' tales. Life is taxing and dark, danger is never too far off, and if you don't get mired in it this time, you are bound to the next time around.

In “Black Step,” Woodrell illustrates the life of a modern soldier with a gritty clarity that portrays the struggles of the returned as well as anything I've previously read. His protagonist, Darden, joined the army to become more interesting than his peers; overgrown boys who cruised the same bars night after night, hoping to get laid. Now that he has survived the desert the empty simplicity of those evenings is no longer available to him. Darden can’t even remember the desire to fuck or be touched. He remains at a remove, seeing his past as frequently as he sees his present, relishing graves that disappear.

The Outlaw Album isn't a collection to dive into without premeditation. I frequently noticed that I was steeling myself for the next encounter. Woodrell's language is spare, amplifying the intensity of what occurs. In an era where so much is packaged for our immediate satisfaction and instant entertainment, the weight of Woodrell's stories feel all the more poignant and necessary. Their edges are sharp and jagged. They not only cut into our consciousness but leave a corrugated mark as a reminder of what was learned.

Viewers of last year’s film “Winter’s Bone” will be familiar with the ferocity of Woodrell’s tales. He is the author of the novel and the filmmakers captured something of the sparse despair of the regular days of his characters; their shots floating across run down properties that are encapsulated in a persistent, dour grey.

The austerity of Woodrell’s prose puts him in league with Hemingway but tacks closer to Raymond Carber. Like Carver he writes of hard drinking, lost men, and determined, stern women. He excavates communities that we are not or comfortable, accustomed to, reading about. Readers of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories may be more at ease with Woodrell’s terrain but he takes a different tone. There is filter on his lens and what is delivered is stark and harsh. Moments of possibility and beauty are not absent, but they are pared down to their essence. The presence of an artistic flourish would undermine the truth of what Woodrell creates and he has no need for them.

To infer that the absence of flourish means a cut and dry tone would be a mistake. Woodrell is a master of his craft and has a command of multiple writing styles. He is first person and third, brother and daughter, violent and loyal. Each hardscrabble character in Woodrell’s collection has a different story of upset and survival to tell. Recuperative periods are suggested between each portrait of life that he presents, but Woodrell’s book is a rare and raw piece of work that should garner the admiration and attention of its readers and perforate the heart.

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