The dark and bloody ground of Kentucky and of the Appalachian highlands have nothing on the Missouri Ozarks of Daniel Woodrell. Here, livings are coaxed from hard scrabble, clans nurse blood feuds into generations, and orphaned travelers alienated from the lush yet stingy land work schemes and swindles that erupt into sudden violence.
The Ozark plateau’s equal-opportunity harshness requires women to be tough and occasionally more dangerous than the men. (Who can forget the scene in Woodrell’s previous novel, “Winter’s Bone,” in which teenage matriarch-before-her-time Ree Dolly must help cut the hands from her father’s corpse so law enforcement can confirm his death? Jennifer Lawrence’s adroit portrayal in film earned her a first Academy Award nomination.)
In his recent novels set in West Table, a fictional version of his own West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell’s storytelling is of his land, his diction its clipped twang rather than the more languid drawl of the Mississippi valley. Yet, when appropriate, his voice is capable of a rhythmic Faulknerian musicality as in this from his newest book, “The Maid’s Version”:
“Trains have haunted the nights in West Table since 1883 and disrupt sleep and taunt those awakened. The trains beating past toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing, You’re going nowhere, you’re going nowhere, and these wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on singing along twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those milk-and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won’t lead or even witness are lived.”
Such passages offer emotional respite from Woodrell’s talent for cutting to the chase, deftly interlocking character with plot: “Her hands ached before she was out of her teens, joints risen, knuckles become bulbs, and it was those aching and distorted hands that she spread flat and warm on each and every of the twenty-eight caskets assembled in the high school gymnasium.” The weathered hands are those of the maid Alma, the coffins those of two-thirds of the victims of a terribly destructive 1929 dance-hall fire, which haunts West Table for generations.
Alma’s cherished younger sister—reluctantly jettisoning an affair with a married man for a night on the town—perished in the fire. The charred dance hall leaves a gaping, unhealed wound on the town, rent further by speculation about the identity of the unknown arsonist, for whom there are several credible candidates.
But Alma has a secret she will not divulge, and suspicions that drive her to virtual madness, unraveling the family of the single mother of three boys until she is shipped to the Poor Farm. One bearing the brunt is ten-year-old John Paul, suddenly thrown upon his own resources, and responding by delivering every local newspaper he can get his hands on, yet who in the midst of the Depression is required to turn over “four bits” a week to the support of his mother.
He becomes relentlessly active for the rest of his life, knowing that “too many thoughts of ordained and burgeoning unworthiness came to the impoverished when idle and ruined them thoroughly from the inside out.” Yet, it is the grandson to whom Alma finally unburdens herself. Ultimately his is a story not of redemption or forgiveness but of resignation, as there would always be one who “would never know a day or night” without hearing “the enormous shrieks, the cries, the roasting in their agony…”
Daniel Woodrell is the best news out of the Missouri Ozarks since the peripatetic Harold Bell Wright (“The Shepherd of the Hills”). He does his readers the high honor of working slowly, polishing his work into compact diamonds of prose. But since you may not see another novel for a few years, you could begin reading backward, through “Winter’s Bone,” “The Outlaw Album” (short stories), “The Death of Sweet Mister” and “Tomato Red.” These may lead you to Woodrell’s earlier “country noir” titles and to the Civil War novel “Woe to Live On” (on which Ang Lee’s stunning film “Ride with the Devil” is based).
Time to get started. You will be haunted for weeks, but you will not regret the journey. (Martin Northway)
“The Maid’s Version”
By Daniel Woodrell
Little, Brown and Company, 176 pages, $25