May 17, 2013

By my reckoning, this superb first (and only) novel by James Ross has had five lives: a first printing in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin in 1940, a Signet paperback (abridged) in 1952, a Southern Illinois University Press hardcover in 1975, a Popular Library paperback in 1976 and, now, this handsome Mysteriouspress.com paperback, an edition that is also available as an e-book for $9.99. All that would seem more than enough to secure the novel’s place in American literature, hard-boiled-mystery division, but quite the contrary: Despite having been praised by Raymond Chandler and countless others along the way, “They Don’t Dance Much” remains pretty much as unknown to the reading public today as it has been throughout the past three-quarters of a century.

This is a rank injustice, though I am scarcely the first to file that complaint; George V. Higgins said as much (though not very coherently) in his afterword to the 1975 edition, and Daniel Woodrell says the same (far more clearly) in his introduction to this one. To be sure, many books of genuine merit have never found the readership they deserve, but this one causes me particular grief because for about a decade, beginning in the mid-1960s, its author was my newspaper colleague, drinking buddy and treasured friend. Born in a small town in North Carolina in 1911, Jim Ross was nearly three decades older than I, but we hit it off. We both loved books, baseball and bourbon, and we loved to talk about the first two while drinking the third, usually in Jim’s little apartment on leafy Fisher Park Circle in Greensboro.

I had joined the Greensboro Daily News (now the News-Record) as an editorial writer in the summer of 1964. Jim covered politics and the state legislature, which mostly kept him in Raleigh until he was brought to the reporting staff in Greensboro and eventually to the editorial page. He talked as he walked, slowly and deliberately, but he had a wry, sneaky sense of humor and an amused disdain for the powers that be. There was a lot more to Jim than cynical newspaperman, but it took awhile for him to talk about it. I knew his sister Eleanor, a lovely and talented poet, the wife of the great writer Peter Taylor, who lived across the park from Jim for a while during my Greensboro years, and I knew that the four Ross siblings — Jim, Eleanor, Fred and Jean — were known to some as “the writing Rosses,” but I assumed that in Jim’s case this referred to his newspaper work.

Then, one evening in his apartment, Jim volunteered that about a quarter-century earlier he had published a novel. I was astonished. Then in my mid-20s, I still held novelists in awe and could not believe that my modest friend was one of them. I pressed him about the book, but he didn’t say much. It had gone nowhere, he said, and apart from a few short stories in popular magazines he hadn’t published anything since except his newspaper work, which he did exceedingly well but about which he had no lofty illusions. As I recall he claimed not even to have a copy, which may simply have been a way of fending off my pleas that he let me read it. (That it never occurred to me to look for it in the Greensboro library must be attributed to the obtuseness with which I am often afflicted.)

Early in 1974, I moved along to the Miami Herald, and Jim and I gradually fell out of touch. Then Southern Illinois republished “They Don’t Dance Much” in its “Lost American Fiction” series, and I finally had a chance to read it. I was bowled over. Set in a roadhouse outside a small town not far from Charlotte and narrated by a failed farmer named Jack McDonald, it is as wry and understated as its author, but as tightly controlled as anything by Chandler or Dashiell Hammett and as attuned to the ambiguities of human behavior as was Jim Ross the political reporter and editorialist. By the third page, reading it was just like sitting in Jim’s apartment and shooting the breeze:


The front cover to "They Don't Dance Much: A Novel" by James Ross. (Mysterious Press)

“The beer cooled me off and I thought it was ten cents well spent. I had another one. While I was drinking it I picked up the Corinth Enterprise and began reading. Fletch Monroe publishes the Enterprise when he’s sober. The folks around Corinth subscribe to it mostly to get rid of Fletch. He goes on a three-weeks’ bender and then sobers up and asks what-all happened while he was drinking. By the time it gets published it’s so old that it’s right interesting. Last summer he had a picture of Babe Ruth on one page and above the picture it said, ‘Going Good This Year.’ Babe had been out of baseball about three years then, but maybe Fletch hadn’t found it out.”

Or, a few chapters later:

“There was another class of folks from Corinth came out that night to investigate [the roadhouse]. They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course. They all stayed out in their cars because they could get drunk more privately out there. If it got out that they had been drinking and cutting up it would hurt their standing in the church and with the best folks. There is a difference between the best folks and the folks that are just nice. The best folks are the ones that will go to the most trouble to keep other folks from knowing when they get drunk. There were just a few of them in Corinth.”

That’s as keen and succinct an account of small-town hypocrisy as anything in Erskine Caldwell or even Flannery O’Connor, so it comes as not much of a surprise to be told by Anthony Hatcher of Elon University, writing last fall in the Oxford American, that O’Connor recommended Ross to her own agent, saying: “He wrote a very fine book called ‘They Don’t Dance Much.’ It didn’t sell much. If you are interested in him, I daresay he would be glad enough to hear from you.” Hatcher also informs us that his writing was admired by the likes of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, which probably made Jim feel good but didn’t bring him the reward that writers most want: readers.

Jim wrote a couple of other novels, but they never found publishers. It was not in his nature to despair, but after the newspaper gave him what he called “the mandatory boot” in 1976, when he turned 65, he renewed his literary efforts. Folded into my copy of the 1975 edition of “They Don’t Dance Much” is a letter from Jim written in the summer of 1976 asking if I would support his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wanted to write “a novel more or less about politics and politicians in a southern state more or less resembling North Carolina.” Of course I wrote him the most lavish recommendation within my powers, and of course he didn’t get the fellowship. Justice, as Jim knew all too well, is a scarce commodity in the world of books and publishing.

Jim was reticent about his writing and his hopes for it, but I think he knew that his work was good and that it should be read. When Southern Illinois reissued his novel, it asked him to write something about it. He said: “The book was written as the Depression was ending and as the stage was setting itself and the characters assembling for the presentation of World War II. Since then, this region of the South has lost much of its rural flavor. The roadhouses have long since disappeared. Human greed and the evils it generates haven’t. Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My memory is that my aim merely was to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”

Jim Ross died in 1990 at the age of 79. He didn’t deal in morals but in truths. “They Don’t Dance Much” has as many of them as you’re likely to find in any other work of fiction, and it parcels them out in prose that has the clarity of truth. Thanks and thanks again to Mysteriouspress.com for giving it another chance.

THEY DON’T DANCE MUCH

By James Ross

Mysteriouspress.com.
287 pp. Paperback, $14.99