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Country noir masterpiece gets its due — again

bookOne of the things that I admire about the New York Review of Books is a special honor that they reserve for what they call the “lost masterpieces of American fiction.” In effect, they acknowledge that occasionally, a major literary work goes unacknowledged. Sometimes, a decade or more goes by and then a noted American critic or author asks, “How did you miss this one?” It seems to have flown in under the radar, undetected and then passed into oblivion. 

Frequently, support grows from other noted authors and critics and NYRB issues a reprint and the public is asked to honor a missed classic. That is what happened with John Williams several years ago. Suddenly his work was being belatedly celebrated. Alas, John is no longer alive to watch a massive new audience read and rhapsodize about his two novels, Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner. Better late than never, I guess.  

Now, it has happened again ... twice to the same book. Back in 1939, a remarkably talented journalist named James Ross decided to write a classic “noir” tale of greed and betrayal. However, it would differ in that the setting would be a North Carolina roadhouse in a little town called Corinth (not far from Durham). The time would be the aftermath of the Depression when the South contained multitudes of disenfranchised and embittered farmers. In addition, Ross seems to have a penchant for names, names that said a great deal about character. Consider the following: Smut Milligan, Catfish Wall and Badeye Honeycutt (both work for Milligan “doing what needs to be done”). 

The narrator of this novel is Jack MacDonald, who speaks with the same laconic, deadpan delivery as the narrator of The Postman Always Rings Twice (“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”). Jack has lost his farm to the bank after another season of failed crops (he still owes for his mother’s funeral), so he sells his mule and accepts a job working for Smut in his new Riverbend Roadhouse which features moonshine, illegal card and dice games and occasional brawls. There are also the clandestine meetings that Smut has with Lola Fisher, who is married to an unstable older fellow who carries a gun.

There are plenty of subplots. Smut builds a few rustic cabins out in the woods that immediately become meeting places for high-stakes gambling. The local millworkers, school teachers and visitors to the Duke football games keep the cabins rented. However, the real heart of this gritty slice of life in the country noir is the crumbling partnership between Smut and Jack.

Jack knows too much. He knows where the money came from to build the Riverbend. In addition, he not only knows where “the bodies are buried,” he assisted Smut in committing the crimes. Smut has made promises and tells Jack that he intends to “make it worth his while,” but as time passes Jack has good reason to think that Smut might do him in. The two old partners slowly become bitter enemies and before long, Jack launches his own plans to either “inherit” the Riverbend or acquire the ill-gotten gains in Smut’s safe, more than enough to vanish and start his own roadhouse someplace else. He just needs to figure out what to do with Smut’s silent partners down at the bank. And then there is that unstable husband who has suspicions about his young wife, and Jack begins to develop a devious plan that bring Smut’s clandestine affair to a violent end.

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They Don’t Dance Much fairly reeks with atmosphere. Everybody smokes Camels, drinks Coco-Colas, shoots pool and they love the juke box (called a nickelodeon ... the kind where you can bring your own recording), like the marvelous character Yonce who brings the hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” which certainly seems inappropriate for a roadhouse but highly appropriate for some of Dexter’s friend who stand in the way of Smut’s plans. Certainly, one of the grisly death scenes in noir fiction has to be the poor fellow who gets marinated in a fermenting vat and then cremated.

The fascinating thing about the history of They Don’t Dance Much is its early reviews. People like Flannery O’Conner, Raymond Chandler and George V. Higgins endorsed the novel as a remarkable example of American crime fiction. Matthew J. Bruccoli, the editor of The Lost American Fiction Series, noted that works such as They Don’t Dance Much deserve another audience because in the last 30 years they have become “valuable social documents” of a time when the Great Depression was winding down and World War II was gearing up.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the remarkable thing about They Don’t Dance Much is this is the second time that it has been so honored. Despite the rousing endorsement given to the release of the version with the George V. Higgins endorsement (1968), the New York Review of Books has now issued another printing and an introduction by Daniel Woodrell (2014). Woodrell, who is the current reigning master of “country noir,” does a masterful job of securing James Ross’ place in the evolution of Southern  “noir” fiction. Perhaps, finally, a proper audience will discover this marvelous novel. I would love to see a movie of this one.

They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. Mysterious Press. 302 pages.

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