They Don't Dance Much: A Novel

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James Ross’s They Don’t Dance Much Returns From the Grave. Again.

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Some novels have strange after-lives. Few can match They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross (1911-1990) published in his lifetime, a book that helped launch a hard-scrabble vein of American literature we now call “country noir.” The novel tells a bewitching tale of lust and bloodshed and death – laced with sly humor – in a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression.  After its initial publication in 1940, despite some positive reviews and praise from the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Chandler, the novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake.

For the next three and a half decades it remained virtually unknown.  Then, in 1975, Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of the Lost American Fiction series at Southern Illinois University Press, brought the novel back to life, accompanied by an ebullient, bittersweet introduction by the best-selling crime writer George V. Higgins, who pointed out that Ross’s novel was a marriage of magnificent writing and horrific luck. But even the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle couldn’t revive Ross’s literary reputation outside his small, fiercely dedicated cabal of fans. Once again, the book sold poorly and soon disappeared.

Another three and a half decades slipped by. There were signs that Ross’s lone novel was gone but not altogether forgotten. In 2009 Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones included They Don’t Dance Much among his 10 favorite crime novels. While researching an essay here about Ross and other “one-hit wonder” novelists in 2010, I learned that a North Carolina academic named Anthony Hatcher had begun working on a biography of Ross and was trying to get his unpublished novel, In the Red, into print. And in a New York Times review of Joe R. Lansdale’s Mucho Mojo, the country noir master Daniel Woodrell named James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, and Jim Thompson as Lansdale’s literary influences. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell went on, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”

That review by Woodrell was in the air a couple of years ago when the literary agent Craig Tenney telephoned Otto Penzler, president and publisher of Mysterious Press. “Even though I’ve been collecting mystery fiction for many years, I didn’t know about They Don’t Dance Much until Southern Illinois Press brought out that edition in 1975,” Penzler recalled recently. “The book stuck with me. On the phone that day I was telling Craig about what I wanted to publish. I’m big on Cain, Ross Macdonald. Craig asked if I’d ever heard of They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. I said, ‘I love that book!’ It reminded me so much stylistically of Horace McCoy – a little bit like Cain, Erskine Caldwell.”

Remembering Woodrell’s review in the Times, Penzler told Tenney, “How about I commission an introduction by Daniel Woodrell? We could publish a print book and an e-book.” When Penzler approached Woodrell, he agreed immediately.

But first they had to secure rights to reissue the book. Tenney works at Harold Ober Associates, where Ross’s last agent, Knox Burger, had worked until his death in 2010. (While working as fiction editor at Collier’s magazine, Burger had published two of Ross’s short stories in 1949. Other Ross short stories were published in Sewanee Review, Cosmopolitan, the Partisan Review and Argosy.)

Tenney approached Ross’s widow, Marnie Polk Ross, the executrix of his estate, and found she was enthusiastic about the idea of a new edition. “Otto Penzler’s a very well known person and Mysterious Press is a reputable press, so I was delighted to do it,” Ross told me on the phone. “I’m thrilled, that’s the right word. I didn’t expect this but I’m never surprised, I guess. Things do happen.”

In his introduction to the new edition, Woodrell says that it was Higgins’s recommendation that turned him on to They Don’t Dance Much back in the 1970s: “I only read the book because the covert avant-gardist George V. Higgins vouched for it as both literature and a good time. Higgins was quickly proved right, and only became more right as each page was turned – They Don’t Dance Much coulda, woulda, shoulda baby, but for some reason didn’t, a fate that is eerily in keeping with the ethos of the novel.”

Woodrell points out that, despite the frequent comparisons, Ross was no acolyte of Cain’s. In fact, Ross claimed he had never read a line of Cain’s fiction when he sat down to write his novel. He said he admired Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Ring Lardner. Given Ross’s scorching sense of humor, I’ve got a hunch Lardner was on top of that august list.

The late William Gay understood Ross’s desire to distance himself from Cain. Shortly before he died in 2012, Gay wrote in the Chattahoochee Review that They Don’t Dance Much is “as noir as novels get. It made the pseudo-tough style of Cain read like Dick and Jane Go To the Sea Shore and reminded me of the early stories of Ernest Hemingway… As far as I’m concerned, this book is where dark Southern fiction began, and any writer who works in the field owes Ross a debt of gratitude, whether he or she has read They Don’t Dance Much or not.”

The closing sentence of Woodrell’s introduction serves as an appropriate last word: “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but never successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”

So read this dark dirty lovely country-noir masterpiece already. It deserves a better fate.

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