Bro­ken lives now ren­dered beau­ti­ful

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

The Maid’s Ver­sion By Daniel Woodrell Scep­tre, 176pp, $26.99 UN­TIL the suc­cess of his eighth work of fic­tion, Win­ter’s Bone (2006), and the film made of it, Amer­i­can writer Daniel Woodrell was re­garded, am­biva­lently, as a cult nov­el­ist rather than of the main­stream.

Apart from his bril­liant Bayou tril­ogy (three nov­els set in New Or­leans fea­tur­ing de­tec­tive Rene Shade), Woodrell has writ­ten of the Ozarks, that ravined plateau, carved by wa­ter, that spreads from south­ern Mis­souri into Arkansas.

Born there, he came back decades later: “He lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line,’’ reads his pub­lisher’s blurb. This state­ment res­onates, as does Woodrell’s fic­tion, with prom­ises of in­ti­mate dis­clo­sures, deep his­tory, en­tic­ing strange­ness. It is to this ter­ri­tory — its ter­rain, mem­o­ries of the Amer­i­can Civil War and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sto­ries of re­silience in the face of thwarted hope — that he has re­turned in his ninth novel, The Maid’s Ver­sion.

The tale is Alma Du­na­hew’s. She had “served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn’t sleep past dawn to win a bet’’. Her rec­ol­lec­tions are gath­ered by her grand­son, Alex, who is fright­ened and fas­ci­nated by this woman “with her pinched, hos­tile na­ture, her dark ob­ses­sions and pri­mal need for re­venge’’.

What still tor­ments Alma is the loss of her sis­ter Ruby, along with more than 40 oth­ers, in the ex­plo­sion and fire that de­stroyed the Ar­bor Dance Hall in West Ta­ble, Mis­souri, in 1929 dur­ing the bleak be­gin­nings of the De­pres­sion. (The novel is based on a sim­i­lar event that oc­curred the year be­fore.) To Alex, Alma con­fides what she knows of the char­ac­ters and pos­si­ble causes of this small-town tragedy. In turn he will give us vi­gnettes, burst­ing with sin­gu­lar de­tails, of some of those who danced for the last time that night.

Woodrell had tra­versed the his­tory of this re­gion be­fore. His sec­ond novel, the am­bigu­ously ti­tled Woe to Live On (1987) (filmed by Ang Lee in 1997 as Ride With the Devil), was set in the bor­der states of Kansas and Mis­souri dur­ing the Civil War. The Kansas Ir­reg­u­lars were mur­der­ous gueril­las — “we made trash of men and places’’ — who fought on the side of the Con­fed­er­acy against federal forces. The killing is re­morse­less as each side pur­sues the other: “When all the tree were bare, we had trou­ble. We suf­fered fear­ful sub­trac­tion.’’

Woodrell’s han­dling of so much vi­o­lence be­comes the more mem­o­rable be­cause those in­volved are pre­par­ing for their own ends. As one re­flects, “Old man is not a way I ever fig­ure to be.’’

It is of a bro­ken world in mod­ern times that Woodrell wrote in Win­ter’s Bone. From where teenager Ree Dolly stands at break of day (in the novel’s first sen­tence), she “smelled com­ing flur­ries and saw meat’’. Look­ing about, she notes where “three halt hag­gard houses formed a knelling rank on the far creek­side’’.

There are Du­na­hews in this story too, and Lan­gans, and Mil­tons (Cat­fish and Thump, Spi­der and Cot­ton among them), war­ring and some­times in­ter-mar­ry­ing clans who carry undy­ing grievances. Ree has the care of her two younger broth­ers and her mother, of whom we have this har­row­ing de­tail: “Mum’s mind didn’t break loose and scat­ter to the high reeds un­til Ree was twelve.’’ Her fa­ther is a “crank cook’’, a maker and dealer of meth am­phet­a­mines, ru­in­ing his own life and those within what hardly still con­sti­tutes a com­mu­nity. Ree seeks news of him alive or dead. There is a mys­tery to be solved in this novel, as in The Maid’s Ver­sion.

What was the role in the ex­plo­sion of the

March 15-16, 2014 banker, Arthur Glencross, whose statue has stood in the town since the 1960s? Alma is maid and cook for his fam­ily, in­clud­ing the wife Corinne (whose money Arthur mar­ried). She is “tiny and thin and pale as a cloud that might be parted by a jaun­diced thought’’.

Ruby pro­vides the sex­ual con­so­la­tion that Glencross lacks within mar­riage. In the mean­time, her sis­ter Alma sal­vages scraps left over from the rich folks’ ta­ble to feed her own chil­dren at night. She is from one of those fam­i­lies that near the end of the 19th century moved to the Ozarks: “trudged to­wards fac­tory money and land­less days’’.

Within the novel’s brief com­pass, Woodrell con­jures a whole, un­sta­ble so­ci­ety, from Sher­iff Shot Ad­der­ley, “a coun­try ga­loot from some help­less cross­roads’’, to Preacher Wil­lard, who ac­cepted the Ten Com­mand­ments “as a half­hearted start but kept adding amend­ments un­til the num­ber of sins he couldn’t coun­te­nance was be­yond me­mori­sa­tion’’.

Woodrell’s lan­guage echoes melod­i­cally with the ver­nac­u­lar of the Ozarks, traces of folk song, the ca­dences of the Bi­ble. Some­times he of­fers, seem­ingly with lit­tle ef­fort, as if from an bot­tom­less repos­i­tory, pithy sim­i­les. This of Alma: “grief has chomped on her like wolves do a calf’’. At other times, sen­tences leisurely un­spool: “The Mis­souri river floated sixty yards from the street, and there was a small cro­chety tav­ern on the cor­ner.’’

On other oc­ca­sions, elo­quence seems to be mis­ap­pro­pri­ated, as when one of the Ir­reg­u­lars in Woe to Live On, hav­ing wit­nessed the hang­ing of an in­no­cent Dutch­man (whose last act is to pray to Abra­ham Lin­coln), shoots the son — or, as he has it, “booked the boy pas­sage with his fa­ther”. This is prose so pow­er­ful as to rep­re­sent not only a hard-won gift, but a sure temp­ta­tion to the au­thor who de­ploys it.

When Woe to Live On was re­pub­lished in 2012, a quar­ter of a century af­ter its first ap­pear­ance, there was a fore­word by Ron Rash, res­i­dent and lau­re­ate of the Ap­palachi­ans rather than the Ozarks, but alive to the roots and the ex­pres­sive medium of Woodrell’s rich and un­set­tling tal­ents.

Each of them honours, and be­longs within a great, pre­dom­i­nantly male tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can writ­ing that stretches back to Mark Twain and runs on through Willa Cather, Wil­liam Faulkner, James Dickey, Larry McMurtry to Cor­mac McCarthy. From the van­tage of their willed ex­ile they have pro­duced, down the gen­er­a­tions, some of their coun­try’s finest fic­tion and po­etry. Peter Pierce edited the Cam­bridge His­tory of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture.

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