In this book, Daniel Woodrell offers a fictionalized, poetic explanation for the real-life Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1928, which killed 37 people In this book, Daniel Woodrell offers a fictionalized, poetic explanation for the real-life Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1928, which killed 37 people and was never solved.
While Woodrell brings his whodunit to a close at the end of the novel, this is really not so much a mystery as an exploration of small town life, class divisions, buried secrets and spurned love, interspersed with vignettes about other vividly drawn characters in the town.
At the heart of the novel is Alma Dunahew, a maid whose husband died an alcoholic and who struggled to take care of her three boys with the meager wages paid her for housekeeping and the leftover food she could steal from her employer, town banker Arthur Glencross.
Glencross is having an affair with Alma's beautiful, fickle sister Ruby, and while Alma doesn't approve, she also refuses to condemn her sister.
Rose will perish in the dance hall explosion, and Arthur will never get over her death, openly telling his wife Corrine years later that "Ruby made so many hours turn to magic, Corrine, gloriously hot-blooded magic ... and they are spun to memories I can't let go of and wouldn't want to, either."
Their affair will become a key part of Woodrell's explanation of the tragedy, along with other ghosts from the past that come to haunt the small Missouri Ozarks town that night.
But the real reason to read this is Woodrell's often beautiful, sometimes maddening prose. His odd word placements sometimes make his sentences difficult to scan, but can have their own power. Here is how he describes Alma's midlife depression, for instance:
"At the Work Farm she fell more deeply into the hole, the blue hole that beckons beneath all our feet when lost for direction or motive for moving at all, the comforting plummet past common concerns and sensate days, down the blue gaping to the easy blue chair that becomes ruinous for its comforts provided in that retreated space, and it takes from years to forever to garner enough replenished zip for the stalled occupant to merely stand from the soft blue avoidance, let alone walk back to the hole and climb toward those known perils of the sunlit world."
I'm giving this three stars, in spite of the critiques I'm about to issue, because for all its faults, this book pulled me through quickly with its epI'm giving this three stars, in spite of the critiques I'm about to issue, because for all its faults, this book pulled me through quickly with its epistolary format.
The entire novel consists of letters of recommendation sent out by a fusty, sardonic English professor at a middling state university whose department is being stripped to the bone in favor of more lucrative majors like economics. The cover blurbs say this book is either hilarious or scathing. I would say it is amusing and lightly satiric.
The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is in many ways a throwback semi-Luddite. He refuses nearly always to write LOR's, as he calls them, online, and he laments, as many professors do, the inability of his students to look away from their screens, write a coherent sentence, or create fiction that doesn't involve zombies and werewolves.
The suspension of disbelief required here is that we're to believe Fitger would really write such scathing and sardonic letters when he was trying to help a student get hired, including the ones to a corporation that he chastizes for ripping off consumers and the one to a Southern school in which he says it should hire his former student because it is mediocre and couldn't do any better.
In the course of the letters, we learn he has cheated on his wife, that his lover cut things off with him because of an inadvertent "reply all" he wrote that made it clear he still loved his ex-wife, and that many of his relationships revolved around a famous literary seminar (sounding very much like the Iowa Writers Workshop) that he and others had attended more than 30 years before.
There were enough familiar jibes at modern academia to keep me interested, but even the epiphany he discovers at the end seems forced and a little shallow.
This is not so much a whodunit as an atmospheric plunge into the dark world of an alcoholic (but intermittently sober) former Irish cop who takes on tThis is not so much a whodunit as an atmospheric plunge into the dark world of an alcoholic (but intermittently sober) former Irish cop who takes on the job of investigating whether a woman's daughter really committed suicide or was murdered.
I can't reveal everything that happens, except to say that the suspects in the girl's disappearance are evident quickly and bad things happen to them without the cops ever getting involved.
The protagonist, Jack Taylor, can be lethally violent, but also has a tender streak and a great fondness for novels and poetry. When he falls for the woman who hired him, there is a tender hope in his life that seems real and poignant despite what an old cop story trope it is.
Will Jack prevail in love and investigative work? And will he find out who killed another of his best friends along the way?
The solution makes for a brutal and dark ending. While there are many touches to commend this depressive portrait, in the end it was not enough of either a mystery or a personal redemption for me to give it four stars....more
It was gratifying to see Malcolm Mackay get back to good form on this final part of his Glasgow underworld trilogy. Where his short, staccato interiorIt was gratifying to see Malcolm Mackay get back to good form on this final part of his Glasgow underworld trilogy. Where his short, staccato interior monologues had just become tedious in the second book, they returned in this novel to driving the tense plot forward, without ever making you certain where it would end up.
As this book opens, young hit man Calum MacLean is engaged in a brutal job, killing the milquetoast money man for his boss' rival, and making his unwitting driver dig his own grave because the organization had found out he was talking to police.
As Calum's bosses, Peter Jamieson and John Young, prepare to finally wipe out their rival, Shug Francis, Calum is hoping to use the silent no-communication period following a job to pull off his escape from this deadly life, which has left him with no true friends, no love live, no ability to walk down a street without looking over his shoulder.
To do that, though, he must rely on one person: his brother William, a car repair shop owner and his only sibling.
The book becomes a saga of what happens to William and Calum in these final days, as well as the revenge that police inspector Michael Fisher finally can wreak on the city's gangsters.
To say any more would be to give away too much, but suffice it to say the pace is taut, the subplots are humming and the book achieves that mastery of the "sudden arrival of violence" punctuated with the eerily mundane day to day lives of professional criminals.
If you took time for only one part of the trilogy, I'd jump straight to this one. ...more