Thursday, May 7, 2009
What Do They Do Then?
This is a slight expansion of the Friday's Forgotten Books post I put up at Patricia Abbott's blog last week... it is the laziest blog post ever.
James Ross produced only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much, 1940, but damned if he didn’t make it count. It’s tough and dirty, funny as hell and it deserves to be read.
“’Okay.” He said. ‘Pull off his shoes.’ While I was taking off his shoes Smut picked up the tongs that were standing beside the fireplace …He put the coal to Bert’s right foot, just above the toes… I wished we could think up some other way of making money.”
So says Jack, the down on his luck farmer, who takes a job from an old school mate with ambitions, and goes along for the ride, or descent. Smut Milligan has got plans for revamping his filling station into a roadhouse with dancing, gambling and hourly rate cabins out back, to attract the money falling from the pockets of hosiery mill workers outside of Corinth on the North/South Carolina border. He also has designs on an old flame, married now to a wealthy man in town. Smut brings Jack on as an employee at the roadhouse and later as a partner in something darker when the flow of money isn’t fast enough to suit his plans. And Jack lets himself be led into trespasses we wouldn’t have believed him, (ourselves), capable of, without much resistance. Then things get sticky.
Fans of Jim Thompson or Charles Willeford will recognize the world view stripped of sentimentality and find that the account of a murder at the plot’s center is still, (seventy years on), shocking and horrific as the disposal of the body is disgusting and hilarious, (this shine taste funny to you?). The book lives in the details and consequences of the actions taken and not, refreshingly so, in stopping the fiends.
I like Raymond Chandler as much as the next guy, but sometimes I wonder what things would look like now without the inescapable influence and legacy of his moralistic and sentimental trappings. They might look something like They Don’t Dance Much which Chandler himself called “a sleazy, corrupt, but completely believable story.” High praise indeed.
Beyond entertaining and provoking me, it taught me a great deal about writing – specifically all the things I do wrong. What things? You’ll have to read it, and me, yourself. I read it only last year for the first time and have gone back to it physically and psychologically countless times since. In another ten years, I imagine I’ll have it memorized.
My main man Scott Phillips turned me on to some amazing books in the last year and none more so than TDDM. There's an afterword in the edition I read by George V. Higgins and it's worth the price of admission alone. George goes OFF on prudes in literature and their choke-hold on culture... No wonder people don't read more. He praises James Ross for telling it like it was from within the confines of the day's publishing standards. It's a nasty, nasty tale, full of gnarly characters who speak and live in a salty way and Ross's delivery of their story is brutal, yet restrained, or hobbled, as George puts it, by the censors of good taste. There's a tendency to look upon the past as either a golden age so far superior to our own, or with contempt for it, as a time of naivete about the state of humanity. This snobbery of chronology, (which is more cynical - dismissive flipness or nostalgia?) blinds us to the greatness of our own times as well as the enormous blind spots we nurture until the sheer weight of our collective leaning collapses them and it robs us of appreciating some damn good stuff from today and yesterday alike. I wish Ross had produced more because his was a powerful, incisive voice, but perhaps, as Higgins recalls, the disappointment of the non-event of the original publication put to rest any other ambitions for fiction. (To paraphrase) The book came out and no one noticed. No one noticed.