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Sam Leith

The Day the Music Died

The Maid's Version
By Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre 164pp 17.99)
Woodrell: puckish

In 1929, in the tiny town of West Table in the Missouri Ozarks, an explosion in the Arbor Dance Hall saw 42 people killed - 'perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown towards the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames'. What actually caused the explosion was never established.

Myth has woven its tendrils around the story. For example, in 1989 it was claimed that the town's memorial - a black marble angel standing over a mass grave - was itself seen dancing, a notion that attracts goths and hippies and loons to a vigil. In 1965, as a child, Daniel Woodrell's narrator Aleks went to stay with his grandmother Alma and heard some of her theories. Her sister Ruby, mistress to the town's banker Arthur Glencross, perished in the blast and Alma is convinced of his culpability.

Woodrell's narrative circles round and round and back - sketching the lives of the victims with superb economy; offering nudges and hints and fragments; teasing open old wounds and long-concealed family secrets. It's seldom that when reading a novel of fewer than 200 pages you find it helpful to sketch a little family tree in the flyleaf to keep track of who's who.

Writers such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor are often evoked in connection with Woodrell. There's a strong tang of Southern Gothic about him, no question (or, if you like, Southern-Midwestern Gothic. Here is the sort of narrative in which, by way of incidental detail, we hear of someone who 'in 1937 drank raw milk too late and died'.

Woodrell's distinctive qualities are his very puckish humour and the way he drapes extravagantly writerly prose on the bones of a ferociously exciting whodunnit. So, sure, there's Faulkner and that, but there's also a genetic connection to the Stephen King of Dolores Claiborne. (That - I should say for people inclined to sneer at Stephen King - is very much not intended as a slight.)

The novel's title refers to a theory about the explosion put together over many years by the monomaniacally vengeful Alma, who worked as a maid in the Glencross house. Really, though, the version we get here is much less hers than that of her grandson; and his version is, pretty nakedly, Woodrell's. It's an essentially omniscient narrator disguised (mostly) as first-person, and given a diction that corresponds to no human being's speech.

Writerly writing is easily overpraised. Woodrell's earns its keep. On rare occasions it's merely clotted:

During those years in which Alma DeGeer Dunahew was considered to have become crazy, her brain turned to diseased meat by the unchecked spread of suspicion amidst a white simmering and reckless hostility, a caustic sickness between her ears could be witnessed by viewing the erosion of the very color in her eyes as she raged and the involuntary sideways tug of her lips as each heated word was thrown.

But nine times in ten, disbelief suspended, it's magical. Look at this, for instance, in its energy and humour, its bumpy and involving particularity:

Sheriff Shot Adderly was a country galoot from some hopeless crossroads who'd come to town and found society pleasing and his calling as a lawman. His given name was a homemade epic, Leotozallious, but he'd been nicknamed Peashot as a teen because of his small size, the name shortened to Shot as he matured, a substitute name he was ever so glad to have considering the one he'd been assigned at birth. A year later, when nothing had become clear to the public and the Citizens' Commission Inquiry had been seated, Sheriff Adderly said: 'If I was to tell all I know about the Arbor Dance Hall blast there'd be lynchings from here to St. Louie.'

What's so involving about this short novel is that the whodunnit - not only the complex events leading up to the cataclysm but the layer-by-layer unwrapping of the stories and rumours that came after - is completely grounded in the life of the community: the divide between rich and poor, the fierce exigencies of money in the era of the Great Depression, the tendernesses and hypocrisies that are the stuff of smalltown life.

This is the portrait of a town, seen through a disaster; it's a pocket family saga; it's also a thriller. What drags you through it like billyo is that underutilised engine for a literary novel: wanting to find out what happens next. But it doesn't have the motivational mechanics of a thriller. About its characters it is wise and unexpected and wide in its tolerance of folly and compromise: repeatedly, the rug is pulled and the plot direction swerves. Auden's line, 'You shall love your crooked neighbour/With your crooked heart', seems especially apt here. In Daniel Woodrell's West Table, neighbours and hearts come as crooked as can be and are all the more fascinating - and, yes, loveable - for that.

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Sam Leith's You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristole to Obama is published by Profile.

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