Reviewers often compare Daniel Woodrell to William Faulkner (easy to see), Flannery O’Connor (not really; she was a devout Catholic and much funnier), and Cormac McCarthy (again, because of the Faulknerian prose, the violence, the testosterone). One might also add Jim Harrison (Harrison was better with plots), Thomas McGuane (more absurd), and here’s an odd one: Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell had none of Woodrell’s dark vision, his style was less elegant, but Woodrell shares Caldwell’s acquaintance with Southern poverty and his proletarian sensibilities.
The other factor complicating how to regard Woodrell is the movies: Ride with the Devil (from Woe to Live On) and particularly, the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone. The movies are Woodrell’s work, too, if only indirectly.
Still, with all of that, one shouldn’t lose sight of the writer himself. He’s not an imitator. For one thing, he writes fiction about the Ozarks, and not many good writers have. I was partly raised in a town not far from West Table (apparently, West Plains, Woodrell’sYoknapatawpha) and he gets every detail right without obsessing over those details.
Woodrell draws from an actual event, a dance hall explosion in West Plains in 1928. Thirty-nine people died, many were injured, and the cause was never quite pinned down. (There’s also a non-fiction account from 2010 by Lin Waterhouse, The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion (https://www.amazon.com/West-Plains-Dance-Explosion-Disaster/dp/1609491165/ref=sr_tc_2_1?ie =UTF8&qid=1533097990&sr=1-2-ent)
Woodrell opens with the maid of the title, an old woman named Alma Dunahew, who’s hosting her grandson, Alek, for the summer. The short novel, almost a novella, is Alma’s account to Alek of the family’s tough history. Alma came from an abusive home. She’s all but illiterate, and eked out a bitter living working for West Table’s more prosperous families. She hardly had food for her own children. But the reader suspects she knows the cause of the explosion, and that’s all Woodrell needs for suspense and to drive to the heart of this old mystery.
After Alma sets things up, Woodrell tells his story with short chapters, featuring portraits of local hussies, St. Louis gangsters, bankers, drunks, and snobs, all of whom may be candidates for the ultimate ruin. These quick, seemingly casual characterizations are the best part of the book. In particular, there’s the fire-and-brimstone preacher, a character who shows up often in Southern fiction, but Woodrell dusts him off and makes him real again: “Preacher Willard accepted the Ten Commandments as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn’t countenance was beyond memorization.”
Gradually, two characters emerge as more important than the others: Alma’s younger sister, Ruby, much more comely, much more flirtatious than Alma; and Arthur Glencross, a self-made man, appealing but flawed, who heads the local bank and whose sound judgment saved it from disaster. He’s an upright guy but can’t resist Ruby, and she, a woman who’s made a career out of mesmerizing men, can’t resist him, either. Their affair edges right up to lurid—and stops.
That’s all there is to the plot except for the brilliant end. Woodrell tells a brooding, sorrowful story, in the process offering up an incisive portrait of the Ozarks that used to be—not corny, not even quaint, but universal.