Friday, November 4, 2011

Trouble in the Ozarks

Despite attention received from last year’s film version of his book Winter Bone, until reading in May a novel by Daniel Woodrell called Tomato Red, the writer’s name was unknown to me. Since that time I’ve read three of his novels collected under the title, The Bayou Trilogy, and that added Woodrell’s name to my look-out-for list of writers. In October he published a collection of short stories called The Outlaw Album. The book is a collection of twelve rather raw and disturbing stories, and to use an expression out of Billy Bob Thornton’s movie Sling Blade, an almost insane journey into the Ozarks among people living their days like escapees from a nervous hospital.

Woodrell’s characters murder over a dead dog and return to kill the corpse three times. A niece tortures and teases her rapist uncle confined to a wheelchair, a man burns downs a neighbor’s house because it blocks his view; a father lives on heartbreak and dreams of revenge. The very powerful second story, “Twin Forks” begins this way: ‘A cradle won’t hold my baby. My baby is two hundred pounds in a wheelchair and hard to push uphill but silent all the time. He can’t talk since his head got hurt, which I did to him. I broke into his head with a mattocks and he hasn’t said a thing to me nor nobody else since.’ The baby here is the narrator’s uncle, a serial rapist observed by the niece raping a young woman in the barn. She, too, has been a victim of her uncle’s repeated incestuous rapes. She beats his head in with a heavy farm tool and then later cares for him in his vegetable state, until there ultimately comes a time when she realizes that even the crumpled silent mess in the wheelchair still harbors a resurgent evil.

What is it that holds the reader throughout these forays into backwoods evil? The answer is Woodrell’s respect for an oral tradition of storytelling that was so rich in his own childhood, and a form he recognizes as the birthplace of words on a page. He follows in the vein of a million grandmothers and graybeards who sat around the hearth thrilling listeners with their stories. Woodrell takes his stories to the raw edge, spoken in the voices of crank heads, traumatized and dangerous veterans of Iraq, a rapist, people all tending toward the bottom half of a social and economic morass. His characters are in a large sense without a moral compass, seemingly ignorant of what most think of as normal behavior. But his storytelling is unflawed.

The twelve stories in The Outlaw Album have a distinct flavor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. Her stories frequently include a pinch of twisted behavior, though more often than not in her stories the twist pops up late in the story. Woodrell brings his twist of human nature to the reader on page one.

A skilled storyteller with an idiom that rings true in every syllable. This new book is one I don’t hesitate to recommend, but hold onto your bootstraps.

1 comment:

  1. One of the great things about being a long time bookseller is discovering new writers. Did that with Woodrell. Yes, his stuff is dark and on the edge but part of the beauty of reading is the distance to it and from it. After experiencing the dark side, unlike real life, you can put the book down and walk away for a while. Yes, a very good writer.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America