August 26: “Uncle” by Daniel Woodrell

Happy Friday, Story366! I finished up the first week of classes here at Missouri State, and I have to say, it’s taken its toll on me. I have sort of a sweet schedule, teaching three classes, each with a period off in-between, meaning I have an hour and fifteen minutes, twice, in the middle of the day, to do things. A lot of that is sucked up by email and social media, but it’s a nice, focused amount of time, at a key part of the day, to get things done. I can make a handout. I can read a story. I can write a blog post.

This week, however, with my nights stretching to early morning, the alarm still going off at 7, I’ve found myself using those free periods for catnaps. I don’t intend that, but I sit in my chair, put my head back, and I’m out. Sadly, I’m having weird allergies now, which means I’m always a little stuffed up, meaning I wake myself up snoring. Today, I was thinking that it was a luxury to start that gap off with a little snooze, recharge the batteries a little. Then I realized that I turned 43 on Monday, not 73, and my office is for handouts and short stories and blogs, not sleeping. Add in the fact that I really don’t want students , my colleagues, or even the army of textbook buyers that think I use textbooks finding me snoring in my chair in the middle of the day.

In short, I need to get to bed tonight.

Not before I present my post on Daniel Woodrell, however. Today I read several stories from his collection The Outlaw Album, a book I picked up when Woodrell visited MSU a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been overly familiar with Woodrell’s work at that point, though I knew Winter’s Bone had been a big success as a film and that his visit was a big deal. MSU is in Springfield, Missouri, the Queen City of the Ozarks, and Daniel Woodrell is the Ozark fiction writer. The fact that Winter’s Bone the movie had done so well, earning some Oscar nominations, only made his work more known and accessible. My department went out of its way to get ready for this event—W.D. Blackmon, our Chair, sites him as his favorite writer—and like any good literary citizen, I was eager as well. I got to have dinner with Woodrell, and a ton of other people, and was treated to an excellent reading from Woodrell’s new book, The Maid’s Version, in front of a capacity crowd.

The Outlaw Album is filled with a lot of Ozark stories, and of the few I read tonight, I think the second, “Uncle,” the best example of what Woodrell does. “Uncle” is about this young Ozarkian woman, perhaps even a girl, who has to take care of a baby—that’s how she starts the story, telling us about her baby, how he’s not a baby, but her uncle, a large older man in a wheelchair in a vegetative state. Our protagonist has to bathe him, feed him, change him, which is why she calls him her baby. She also refers to him as her former evil uncle, so it’s a pretty good start—all of this is a tiny first paragraph—how an evil uncle has digressed to this pathetic state.

And it’s the worst answer in history. Uncle was not only evil, but he was in the running for most evil person ever, pretty much a serial rapist and murderer, using our protagonist and her mother (Uncle’s sister) as his unwilling but trapped accomplices. The narration relays Uncle’s history, how he acquires his victims (many were canoeing on a river that runs past their farm), how he assaults them, how he expects his niece to get rid of them. The worst trait I can remember in any of my uncles was that half of them were White Sox fans. Uncle in this story is the devil.

Our hero, however, is not the devil, and after a particularly rough encounter between Uncle and a victim, she directs a rather heavy object onto Uncle’s head, causing the incapacitated state that we find him in at the start of the story.

More things happen between our protagonist and her baby-uncle, none of which I’ll reveal here, giving you something to discover on your own. I’ve already described some pretty grotesque goings-down, and from what I’ve read of The Outlaw Album, that’s a well that Woodrell goes to pretty often. The Ozarks, in general, is an area stricken by poverty, poverty that leads to desperation, which leads to crime. The stories I read all involve grisly murders, people taking the law into their own hands, Ozark justice doled out with extreme prejudice. Woodrell’s characters have (and use) guns, they smoke meth (417, our area code, is a popular name for the drug), they engage in incest, they make ridiculously stupid decisions. I’ve taken note that Woodrell seems to write about the worst element of the Ozarks, but he might have to. Maybe Woodrell’s identified the romance of the region to outsiders, what separates Ozarkians from other Americans, or more likely, what outsiders want to believe. What they’ll buy. Whatever his reasoning, Woodrell’s good at it in these stories, depicting the lowest common denominator, but they always prove fascinating, show me something I don’t see every day (and I live here). That’s what great fiction does and Woodrell is a great writer.

The Outlaw Album is a memorable, vivid book. Its ultra-realism can be tough to take, if you’re not ready, and even though Daniel Woodrell is focusing on the Ozarks’ worst element, he does so with an unforgiving grace. The stories as stark and straightforward as they can be. There is no decline to these awful states, no drastic character arcs or stunning epiphanies; the stories and people are what they are and Woodrell doesn’t apologize.