[the young narrator visits his grandmother, who lives in a small Missouri town blighted by an explosion and fire in a dance-hall in 1929]
The twenty-eight unidentified dead were buried together beneath a monumental angel that stood ten feet tall and slowly turned black during year after year of cold and hot and slapping rain...
We’d make our way through the wilderness of headstones, gray, brown, puritan white, glancing at some, nodding at some, Alma turning her nose up at others, until we reached the Black Angel, the sober monument to our family loss and a town bereaved. Standing in the shadow of this angel she would on occasion tell me about a suspect person or deed, a vague or promising suspicion she’d acquired with her own sharp ears or general snooping, and when she shared the fishy details with me it would be the first time she’d said them aloud to anybody in years. She’d repeat herself so I’d remember. We’d then walk home...
observations: Everything you have heard about Daniel Woodrell is true. He is an extraordinary writer, absolutely compelling, the kind who makes you shake your head in wonder.
I don’t really know what genre this book is. There are crimes in it, and deaths, and there is a kind of resolution at the end. But really it’s just a picture of a small town in Missouri over the 20th century – short, to the point, but making you feel you know the place.
He has marvellous snippets of character – the man who quotes a line of poetry on a date and then
seemed nervous, suddenly concerned that he might now be expected to have an apt quote for many sights or situations and he did not.Much later he ‘saw tomorrow forget his name and title and stroll past him without so much as a fond glance his way’, and later again he ‘moved fast as a bad idea.’
The woman who doesn’t really appear at all but has a son who
never visited her anymore and was likely dancing with men again since he was still alive and a devotee of sins that can’t be spoken.The two women who receive a fancy note – they
smelled its scent of vanilla and admired the fine script. They had to wait more than an hour for a child to come home and read the enclosed card to them.
It’s not a long book by any means, but in between the riveting story of the main characters, Woodrell inserts short chapters about some of the other people who died in the fire - just showing off really, that he can create more of a real person and family in a few pages than most authors can in a whole book.
One character goes to Columbia University in Missouri, which is where Stoner , key book of last year, featured on the blog before that , is set. The poverty-stricken lives and the two contrasting sisters – one virtuous, one not so much - reminded me of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a fatal dance-hall fire is a key feature in Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, on the blog here. I could mention The Help, which might be thought to cover similar territory, but the two books are on different planets.