On a quiet night in 1929, in the small town of West Table, Missouri, an explosion ripped through the local dance hall. 42 people died, and although a handful of people were suspected, nobody was charged.
But lots of people paid, and paid dearly.
It’s the aftermath of the explosion, rather than the event itself, that is the center of Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version. The maid in question is Alma DeGeer Dunahew, and she has a theory on who caused the explosion and why. Her son doesn’t want to hear about, think about it or talk about it, but in her grandson she finds a willing audience. It’s not until a strange visitation at a memorial to the explosion that the boy’s father relents: “Tell it. Go on and tell it.”
What follow is an economical, lyrical tale of small-town secrets and hidden desires. This is not a piece of brightly polished nostalgia – this is a story about a town caught in the Depression, with many of its residents struggling to eke out an existance that’s hardscrabble at best. Woodrell does not shy away from the ugliness of such meager
living. He shows us kids that are thrilled to get a piece of pie with just a bite or two taken out of it that their mom rescues from the leavings of the dinner party she worked; he shows us a boy who lives on the floor of the family shack, his life bleeding out in rattling, gasping breaths because proper medicine isn’t affordable.
But it’s not all ugliness – there’s beauty, too, much of it found in Woodrell’s prose. The author is a natural storyteller, but he’s also a seasoned and exquisite writer. There are passages, sentences and turns of phrase that catch your attention, flag you down and invite you to just stop and stare for a minute. This may sound like he’s breaking one of the cardinal rules of fiction, pulling you out of the story and reminding you that,hey, there’s a WRITER sweating his ass off to bring you all this goodness, but it’s okay. Like pulling over during a long drive to take in the view, these occasional intrusions are worth the interruption.
Some of my favorite bits are the brief interludes in which Woodrell takes a page or two to talk about various victims of the explosion. These brief passages put names and faces to the tragedy so that it becomes more than a mere plot device to move the story forward. In these quick chapters, Woodrell creates characters more realistic than many writers manage to pull of in entire novels.
The Maid’s Version is the author’s first novel in seven years, and it’s a welcome return. Spare in length but abundantly rewarding, it’s further proof that Woodrell is one of the finest writers working today.