Added to the list of things one shouldn’t judge a book by: page count. Daniel Woodrell’s ninth novel, and his first since 2006’s Winter’s Bone (which became an award-winning feature film in 2010), is less than 200 pages long. But thanks to Woodrell’s rich storytelling, this slim novel has the feel of an epic.
The story centers on a real-life incident—the explosion of a Missouri dance hall in 1929—reimagined as fiction. One by one, in alternating and sometimes overlapping scenes, those who survived the blast recall those who were lost in it. Adding another few layers of intrigue and perspective, the novel is narrated by Alek, a young man remembering the story as he heard it one summer in 1965 from his grandmother, Alma, whose sister was among those killed in the disaster.
Alma fascinates and scares her grandson equally: She’s a stern, reserved woman with a “pinched, hostile nature,” “dark obsessions” and a “primal need for revenge,” Alek says. Her story is essentially a ghost story, and it has a strong hold on the boy. She doles it out slowly, in bits and pieces, with many satisfying digressions. “She would at times leave the public horror and give me her quiet account of the sad and criminal love affair that took her sister Ruby away from us all,” Alek recalls.
The novel has the feel of someone going through an old family photo album, dredging up odd facts and anecdotes about this or that person. The mystery at the center of this storytelling mosaic is, of course, just what caused the dance hall to explode: Who is responsible? And why? And how is it that the truth has not come out, even after all these years? By the time we learn the answer, or at least Alma’s answer, it feels somehow both inevitable and entirely unexpected.
But it’s not the mystery that keeps the story moving. It’s the gossip. As ever, Woodrell is a master of exposing to daylight the darkest corners of the human psyche. His miniature portraits of the local characters, even those that are only a page or two long, make the town vivid and real, and the result is a larger sense of loss. We know these people, not just the main players but the rest of the town; any one of them could have been at the heart of the story. This small book holds a wide world.