The question that attends a new book by Daniel Woodrell is: which Woodrell will we get this time? There is Woodrell the crime writer, whose boxer-turned-police detective Rene Shade stalks the three novels of Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. There is Woodrell the author of what he calls “country noir,” books like Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister, and Winter’s Bone, set in the benighted Missouri Ozarks and straddling the fine line between crime fiction and existential meditation. And there is even Woodrell the history buff, whose Civil War western Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee as Ride with the Devil in 1999.
The Maid’s Version, Woodrell’s ninth novel, is his first to give us all three versions of the writer. Like Woe to Live On, it transports the reader far from the present — in this case, to 1929, the year a terrible explosion and fire at the Arbor Dance Hall claimed forty-two lives and devastated a community. It takes place — like those country noir stories — in West Table, Missouri, a town modeled on Woodrell’s native West Plains. Though it is not a crime novel, let alone a noir, it does have a central mystery as tortuous and challenging as one is likely to find in the finest genre works: Who started the fire, and why?
The woman who knows, or thinks she does, is the maid of the title, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, “with her pinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge.” The tale is narrated by her grandson Alek, who is recollecting Alma’s version from a summer he spent with her, aged twelve. “She was lonely, old and proud,” Alek says, “and I’d been sent from my river town near St. Louis by my dad as a gesture of reconciliation.” This book ought to come, like an Icelandic saga, with a genealogical diagram; the reader must pay careful attention to names, relationships, and subtle gradations of wealth and poverty.
Some of those gradations aren’t subtle at all. Alma is simply poor. She works for Arthur Glencross, a bank president. “She hated that she fed another man’s children before she fed her own”: This could have been an eye-roller, the kind of line trotted out in a YA novel to teach children about the plight of domestics in Ye Olden Days. Yet it is followed by a scene of such understated power and poignancy that we feel it fully. We watch Alma clean the kitchen, only to have the blithely spoiled Glencross children ask for more dinner — and then to vanish into their rooms while Alma’s children dream at home of “food that had a bone in it, or at least food that had once lived on a bone.”
Woodrell has a gift for depicting the divide between haves and have-nots in a way that is never sentimental or homiletic. In his bleak world, inequities are a part of life in the same manner as physics or biology: inescapably. His survivors are those who learn to navigate hardship without whining.
Hence Ruby DeGeer, Alma’s sister, who is having an affair with the married Glencross and who uses her feminine wiles to get her own more out of life (“some men could bore her beyond courtesy before the first drink was drained”). Hence Alek’s father, who delivers such hard-bitten advice as this: “[Y]ou can’t go around being angry at everybody out there who has a swimming pool or a shiny car . . . . Those fancy-pants sorts are the people have to hire you someday — they can tell if you hate them in general.” These characters are larger than life because they see life as it is, not as it should be.
Woodrell describes the miseries and pleasures of that life in a language for which he is justly famous, a kind of prose poetry that veers between serpentine eloquence and crook-patter deadpan. He takes risks with his words, and the only reasonable complaint about The Maid’s Version is that these risks do not always pay off. Attempts at old-fashioned locution sometimes land with a thud — “She did alone and with pain crawl back into the Ford.” There are some passages one might nominate for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award: “She knew all the worthwhile crevices and wrinkles and bulbous places” might produce shivers, but not of erotic thrill. But in a book filled with bracing dialogue and evocative turns of phrase, these are minor cavils.
The potential villains of The Maid’s Version waltz before Woodrell’s readers in a grim masquerade. There are gypsies. There is a former gangster who has changed his name and tried to go straight. There is Woodrell’s sepia-toned answer to Footloose, a preacher who believes that “[a]mong the easiest portals to the soul through which demons might enter was that opened by dancing feet.” There is, of course, Arthur Glencross, the powerful often having obscure motives and the means to get away with anything. What these figures — and the fog of confusion, rumor, and outright falsehood surrounding them — provide is a reminder of just how little we know about those who surround us.
Alma, who “let her hair grow too long for kitchen work by simple forgetfulness,” decides to “let it grow on forever, having an immediate hallowed sense that hair of an otherworldly length displayed a public, devotional reverence for the dead, for the dead and her quest to achieve for certain of the dead justice or blood, one or both, but especially both.” Alma’s strange appearance almost serves as a warning to others that she is the self-appointed memory and conscience of West Table. The hunger for truth, and to a lesser extent justice, is the grand theme of The Maid’s Version. Yes, Woodrell shows us the consequences and reverberations of a tragedy down through the generations. But he also shows us, more to the point, that unanswered questions will always torture us more than the tragedy itself.