‘Outlaw Album’ digs at psyche, brings Missouri Ozarks to life

Henry Clayton Wickham

“Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him,” Daniel Woodrell writes in “The Outlaw Album,” a collection of short stories about life and violence in the Missouri Ozarks. Although other rough and wild Ozark gems emerge in the collection, this first line is probably the best explanation of the itch that Woodrell can’t keep from scratching in this book. It is the itch of the Ozarks, and each story sends blood, sorrow and anger surging forth from a past that Woodrell’s characters just can’t seem to stop living. If the characters in these pages know what they want, they have long since forgotten why, and they keep on wanting only out of habit, or boredom or sheer inertia.

First, in “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” Boshell murders his neighbor Jepperson, “an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota.” He does the job with a squirrel rifle, but — in his words — “just can’t get to feelin’ done with the son of a bitch.” So when DishTV cuts off or the coffee runs out, he returns to his neighbor’s corpse and tries to kill the goading look of its “greening face.” When Boshell finally throws the corpse in his truck and hauls it off to his old family land, Woodrell provides an insight into the history that has brought the man to his sorry state. “Boshell’s people had lived on this dirt until the government annexed it for the National Forest in the 1950s,” Woodrell writes, “and lazy old time had slowly reclaimed the place for trees and weeds and possums. He came here often, to sit and wonder and feel robbed of all these acres.”

Next comes “Uncle,” a story written in the dialect of an Ozark teenage girl who tries to murder her rapist uncle in the family barn one afternoon. “Oh, my,” the girl’s mother exclaims when she sees her brother bloodied in the hay, “if he don’t die, what’ll we do?” As feared, Uncle doesn’t die. He becomes a vegetable, and the narrator uses his state as an opportunity to punish him for molesting her. “You finally get the ogre under your thumb and you can’t hardly keep from torturing him some at first,” she admits.

More tortured, jaded and psychologically complex characters follow. However, not all of their stories are as well-told as Boshell’s or Uncle’s. Some are a bit messy and seem too short for the many names and memories that Woodrell crams between their pages. For example, in “A Woe to Live On,” Woodrell introduces a dozen characters, while alternating between a scene in 1916 and an old man’s Civil War memories. Next, in the very short “Dream Spot,” he kills off an unhappy married couple after an unconvincing argument that fails to give the reader any reason to care about why the two are unhappy in the first place.

Even the weaker stories of this collection pay off with certain perceptive passages and bone-chilling truths, but these gems are un-mined and the reader has to dig for them. In his more jumbled concoctions, Woodrell’s prose also loses clarity. He is at his best when writing stories that are simple yet psychologically complex, exploring violence, depression and cultural tensions.

Woodrell often pits locals against “foreigners” in interesting ways. For example, in “Two Things,” a father describes a visit from a do-gooder with a hemp purse who informs him that his thieving son has become a published poet while in prison. “Cecil?” the father replies. “Cecil a thief… And not that sly a one neither.” The story, told from the father’s perspective without dialogue, is a fascinating example of two people who just cannot understand one another. The woman brings Cecil’s poems to the father as proof of penance, but the poems are like the land stolen from Boshell’s family in “The Echo of Neighborly Bones.” For the father, they are just one more thing that’s been stolen by the outside, ripped away and appropriated for the viewing of the casual tourist. “Look lady,” he says. “Wish Cecil well but it is like this. He ain’t getting no more poems off of us.”

“The Outlaw Album” is an uneven collection of short stories in many ways, but what stands out consistently is Woodrell’s ability to conjure up the world of the Ozarks — its thick forests and salvational rivers, its bitter feuds of “untamed people who shot at things to so plainly announce their sorrow.” The Ozark wilderness comes alive in these pages. It’s a magic trick only Woodrell can perform.