Friday, September 20, 2013

The Maid's Version -- Daniel Woodrell

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident?     -- from the dust jacket

In my estimation, Daniel Woodrell is one of the fiercest writers in contemporary American literature. He never uses three words when one well-chosen one will do, and he never gives his reader a chance to avert their eyes. If you read Woodrell, you're going to walk into some mighty dark places in the human experience. That's a guarantee. I have read two other novels by him, Give Us a Kiss and Winter's Bone, both of which were devastating in the best ways possible.

The Maid's Version, despite its interesting premise and exquisite writing, left me flat, even as it left me in awe of Woodrell's ability to capture a moment in words. Nobody writing today is better than he at descriptive passages that beg to be read aloud. The opening scene, in which Alma is brushing her long, long hair in front of her grandson, was so magnificent that I read it several times through. When he described the color of that hair as "...mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page" I ached with the memory of my mother's hair at the end of her life. 

I'm not sure what it was that kept me so disconnected from the story. Woodrell slips like mercury between events from the past and the book's present, a device that might have kept me from sinking all the way in for some reason. 

Surly's Bottom Line:  If you have not yet read Daniel Woodrell, go fix that -- but with a different book. 

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