In 1929, in the tiny town of West Table in the Missouri Ozarks, an explosion in the Arbor Dance Hall saw 42 people killed – ‘perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown towards the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames’. What actually caused the explosion was never established.
Myth has woven its tendrils around the story. For example, in 1989 it was claimed that the town’s memorial – a black marble angel standing over a mass grave – was itself seen dancing, a notion that attracts goths and hippies and loons to a vigil. In 1965, as a child, Daniel Woodrell’s narrator Aleks went to stay with his grandmother Alma and heard some of her theories. Her sister Ruby, mistress to the town’s banker Arthur Glencross, perished in the blast and Alma is convinced of his culpability.
Woodrell’s narrative circles round and round and back – sketching the lives of the victims with superb economy; offering nudges and hints and fragments; teasing open old wounds and long-concealed family secrets. It’s seldom that when reading a novel of fewer than 200 pages you find it helpful to sketch