On Preparing to Read Daniel Woodrell

by Brendan Strong

I recently got Daniel Woodrell’s new collection of short stories (The Outlaw Album). This is going to be a tough. In a good way.

Some background: I first read Daniel Woodrell a good few years ago (maybe 2003 or 2004). Having raved about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the guy I worked for said: “Yeah, it’s very good. You should read Woodrell though.” “Woodrell?” I said. “Woodrell.” he said. The next day, be brought in The Death of Sweet Mister. I read it in 2 sittings, then read it again over the course of two weeks.  I was exhilarated, heart broken, strung out with suspense, appalled by behaviour of some characters, appalled by the lives others had to live. I had to have more. I searched out more books by Woodrell, but found little in shops. I had to borrow, beg and Amazon those that I could get.

Then Winter’s Bone came out. This became a film. The positive publicity and critical review of Winter’s Bone meant Woodrell’s fiction got something of a boost. It also  spurred me to return to the books that captivated me for so long. Luckily, I found a great bookshop, near where I work, that could get the Woodrell I needed (http://www.ravenbooks.ie/ in Blackrock, for the curious or those in need of a book).

Luckily, many of the books I had enjoyed were being reprinted. The Bayou Trilogy – a series of detective-type novels, centring around a central character; and based in a city where there are no tracks for one to be on the right side.  These are written and intended as fast-paced stories, not so much whodunnit (but a bit of that) as a fairly kinetic unravelling of a story, within which different strands are found to be unexpectedly – but unavoidably – knotted together.  They aren’t high literature, but they still leave you gasping for air.

Of his more literary books, there is Winter’s Bone (probably the best known), Death of Sweet Mister (my personal favourite), Tomato Red and Give Us  a Kiss. There is also a historic novel,  Woe to Live On, which Ang Lee turned into the movie “Ride with the Devil”.

Woe to Live On is the only one I haven’t read, finding it very hard to get (although, right now, Give Us a Kiss is proving impossible also).

Woodrell has a very readable style; he grabs you by the throat then shakes you until you are good and shook. Despite this kinetic approach, his literary novels land something in every punch – nothing is wasted or used simply “for effect”.  He brings to life very difficult characters using what seem to be the most simple brush strokes. Within a few pages, you can feel like you’ve known a character for years: one that has suffered deprivation, possibly abuse, dealt with violence in more ways than most, has very particular views about life (whether it be that there is or is not hope &c.).  You understand their views on life; you empathise. You nearly never feel pity for these characters – there are no “victims”. They are merely human, and presented entirely unjudged. The effect is remarkable, and makes a book like The Death of Sweet Mister (violent, oedipal, abusive, socially realistic, a look at youth and growing up in the mountains of middle America) readable in 2 days or 2 weeks.

This intensity is what makes reading Woodrell tough. Tough in a good way – you come out the other end completely shaken. When approaching the next, there is this apprehension: You must be ready. You must have plenty of rest, put aside time, and be ready to be shaken mentally and emotionally. This is what makes Woodrell one of the best writers working today. This is what makes me want to start reading “The Outlaw Album” with the  same trepidation and attraction as one about to walk on coals.