I suppose this is a bit of a mystery novel, in a way, although not like one I've ever read and certainly structured differently than one I can think of. One evening in 1929 in West Table, Missouri, the Arbor Dance Hall exploded in flame and smoke, taking forty-two carefree souls into the afterlife. For years after, speculation, suspicion, and blame are bandied about, but it would seem that no solid proof was ever found and no one was ever convicted of a crime. All that was left was the grief in the wake.
The story of what happened that fateful evening unfolds from the aging mind of Alma Dunahew, former maid to the wealthy Glencross family and sister to the vivacious, flirtatious Ruby, who died in the explosion. Alma has long had suspicions of the cause of the explosion, but has never been able to fully piece it all together. She decides to tell everything she knows to her grandson, Alek, in hopes that the puzzle will finally come together and the secrets of her family history can finally be revealed.
"What'd you learn today, Alek, and what use will you make of it?"As if piecing together Alma's actual memories, Woodrell takes his time in forming a picture of what might have happened at the Arbor. He gradually introduces us to the players in this tiny Missouri Ozarks town, almost by way of character sketches, rather than a simple means to an end. Time is out of joint for Alma, who has spent the 30 years since the Arbor beset with grief and insanity. Characters and their stories reveal themselves at crooked points in the timeline as a result. Or perhaps it's just a reflection of Alma's keeping the grief close for as long as possible.
Woodrell beckons us into this tiny town for the unveiling of this multi-faceted, complex story, allowing time for the tale to be released from the bonds of the past. The town itself has never fully gotten over the grief of that evening in 1929, so many bright lights snuffed out prematurely. The resulting novel - a terse, dense, neutron-star of a book, in many ways reminiscent of Denis Johnson's brilliant Train Dreams - is another hefty notch in Woodrell's substantial canon of work, further cementing him as a modern master of American fiction. Pulitzer, anyone?