Don't be fooled by the modest length of this novella. This is no light read; rather, it's as dense as a Christmas pudding, stuffed to groaning with sweetmeats and pickled things and familiar but unsettling tokens, then drowned in something bitterly alcholic and set recklessly ablaze for our consumption.
The book's synopsis seems to promise a work of Southern noir, an expose of the mysteries and secrets surrounding a horrific 1920s dance hall fire that devastates a small, insular southern town. But this book is character- rather than plot-driven, an expose not so much of - a crime? an accident? an act of love? an act of vengence? - as an exploration of how complex prejudices, motivations, and relationships within a community spin a web so tangled and inescapable that a tug upon one strand has unforeseeable and often tragic consequences upon the whole.
Before too many pages have passed, the alert reader will realize that Woodrell isn't like other storytellers. One becomes used to authors "tidying" their material - arranging events in chronological order, emphasizing important details, omitting insignificant events - the better to aid their readers' comprehension. Real life, in contrast, is anything but tidy: information gets dispersed erratically, if at all; critical details are omitted or pass unrecognized; and distracting red herrings abound. Woodrell's storytelling technique mimics this latter style, which I gather some readers have found off-putting but which I found fascinating. The result is that one is constantly having to cast aside preconceived notions, question biases, and reevaluate assumptions.
All of which makes this dense going, but well worth the labor if you're willing to set aside your preconceived notions about what this book "should be" - a formulaic Southern gothic - and accept it for what it is - a much more genuine, and in many ways infinitely more tragic, exploration of the tangled webs - spun by generations of poverty, pride, aspiration, humilitation, hope, despair, class, race, love and loss - that our untidy, unruly human hearts inevitably weave.