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Simultaneously dark and vivid, bleak and evocative, haunting and familiar, articulate and reductive.
A Literary Experience from Daniel Woodrell
Paperback. 167 pp.
October 9, 2012 [Paperback]. Back Bay Books.
In the three years since I first started writing for AND Magazine, I have written dozens upon dozens of book reviews. All of my book reviews have been on non-fiction titles. That has been the case for a couple of obvious reasons. First of all, I am a Presidential historian, so I rarely ever read fiction. Fiction has never been all that interesting to me. Sure, I love wonderful literature and respect the art form, but I've never written fiction and the fiction that I do read is either classic literature (and by "classic" I'm talking F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez) or historical fiction like the titles from Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series such as Lincoln: A Novel or Burr: A Novel. I have a deep appreciation for the creativity and skill required of fiction writers, but it's just not usually my thing, especially contemporary literature.
Because I am a historian and because of the fact that, when I'm not reviewing books, I'm working on my own books and writing about history, I spend a lot of my allotted reading time studying other history. Anybody who digs through my archives here on AND Magazine will see that most of my reviews are about Presidents, the Presidency, or events directly affecting or influenced by the Presidents or the Presidency. When publishers send me books to review, 99% of the time they are non-fiction titles, and 70% of those titles have something to do with Presidential history. And that is absolutely cool with me; I have no complaints about that! That is what I enjoy reading and reviewing. That is what I excel at. When that rare 1% occurs and a work of fiction arrives, I might thumb through it a bit, hope that it catches my attention so that I can add some diversity to my book review index. Without fail, however, I always put it down and pick up a non-fiction title that I'm far more interested in. I've been writing for AND Magazine for nearly three years and I have reviewed over 50 books in our Literature section, but I have never, ever reviewed a work of fiction in the pages of this magazine.
At 2:00 PM yesterday afternoon, my mail arrived and the fine folks at Back Bay Books had sent me a book for possible review -- a work of fiction. As I always do, I wanted to thumb through a few pages and see if anything caught my attention, but I was not expecting much because, as I mentioned, after over 50 book reviews for AND Magazine, I had not yet found a work on fiction that I was more interested in reviewing than all of the great non-fiction titles that I regularly receive and have piled on my shelves. I sat down with the book, but had a book about Ulysses S. Grant nearby, ready to make the switch when the fictitious book failed to capture my attention. Three-and-a-half hours after I had sat down and opened up Daniel Woodrell's The Outlaw Album: Stories (Back Bay Books, Paperback, October 9, 2012), I read the last page, closed the book, and immediately started texting several of my literary friends. The Outlaw Album hadn't simply captured my attention; it mesmerized me from cover-to-cover. I lost track of time, lost track of what I was doing, I lost myself in Daniel Woodrell's bleak and haunting world.
For a guy who doesn't read a whole lot of fiction, I guess it's easy for me to say that The Outlaw Album is one of the best works of fiction that I have read, but I'm not saying that relative to other contemporary works of fiction. I mean that it's some of the best fiction that I have EVER read. I mean that it is good in the same way that The Great Gatsby is good. It is good like The Sun Also Rises is good. I rank it up there with To Kill A Mockingbird or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Outlaw Album is unlike anything that I have ever read. A collection of short stories, Woodrell's pieces are somehow simultaneously dark and vivid, bleak and evocative, haunting and familiar, articulate and reductive. Each of Woodrell's stories are delicately structured and gloomy, yet not completely devoid of hope. I simply do not know how Woodrell has written something like The Outlaw Album. It is a book of complex stories about humanity and inhumanity, but Woodrell's words and sentences seem to have a fragility to them. That fragility, however, is fragile in the same way that a ballet dancer is fragile -- the stories of The Outlaw Album can tip one way or the other; they can spin with subtle, imperceptible strength; and the balance between triumph and tragedy, life and death, good and evil is so riveting and so tenuous that I still can't fully explain the experience. It IS an experience, though. The Outlaw Album is not simply something that you read. Yes, your eyes scan the pages and your brain processes the words and your intellect pieces together the stories and characters, but each of the twelve stories in the book is a new experience. The Outlaw Album is something that you feel, from beginning to end, through every part of each of the twelve stories.
What really stood out for me in Daniel Woodrell's The Outlaw Album was something as real to me as the history that I usually read. Woodrell is a Missourian by birth and today lives in the Ozarks on the Missouri side near the Arkansas border. While the twelve stories of The Outlaw Album are separate entities with different characters and very different events, they are all set in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas and everything has a familiar feel. I've lived in Missouri for 18 months and used to spend summers in the state as a teenager. I don't live in the Ozarks, but I've visited, and Woodrell has spun the unique terrain and the shadowy pockets of the region into the tie which binds the stories of The Outlaw Album together. Woodrell, in a way, has turned the setting of the stories into the main character of the book. The legendary John Steinbeck made the areas familiar to him, the areas that he called home -- Salinas, Monterey, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Central Valley of California -- the home of his literary classics such as In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. While the characters, of course, mattered, these settings helped to build Steinbeck's characters. Woodrell does something very similar in The Outlaw Album, and the Ozarks that Woodrell takes us through -- the thick forests, the rugged terrain, the rivers and streams -- are as important as the people who live and die on the land. Without the setting that Woodrell is so obviously familiar with from his own personal experiences, the characters we are introduced to and the events that transpire wouldn't have the same foundation. In The Outlaw Album, as in Steinbeck's classics, we see a people defined by the peculiar place that they live.
In one of The Outlaw Album final stories, "One United", Woodrell writes, "My thoughts chased after scenes occurring all over the world, scenes that fled faster than I could chase, and I sat on the grass feeling bereft, abandoned by my good dreams, surrounded by the others." Line after line in the twelve stories that make up Daniel Woodrell's masterpiece leap from the page and anchor the reader to the book. The Outlaw Album is a book about dreams and nightmares, love and loyalty, hatred and revenge, a unique population of Americans who live in a rather curious section of the country. The setting is stark and desolate despite the geography and terrain. The emptiness belongs to the people in Woodrell's stories; people who seem to be psychologically vacant but not emotionally absent or intellectually deficient. The big question is who or what is most alive -- the people of Woodrell's Ozarks or the land itself. The sparse, lyrical quality of The Outlaw Album keeps the readers captivated; the frightening yet beautiful violence keeps the readers guessing. The paperback edition of The Outlaw Album is only 167 pages long, but despite reading it cover-to-cover, I've realized that the book's experience has no end.
The paperback edition of The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell will be released by Back Bay Books on October 9, 2012. The hardcover edition, however, is available now from Amazon, or you can download it instantly for your Kindle. The Outlaw Album is Daniel Woodrell's first collection of short stories. Five of his eight novels have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Woodrell's best-known book, Winter's Bone (BOOK KINDLE), was adapted into a film in 2010 and received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.