'I Was Dancing': A Novel That's Still Light on Its Feet

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Waltzing Daniel Considine is one of the great characters of American literature -- I'd rank him up there with Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood, to name just three -- so it's too bad that so few readers have met him. He is the protagonist of "I Was Dancing," a short and wildly funny novel by Edwin O'Connor that originally appeared in 1964, made a small splash that lasted only a couple of years, and now seems pretty much to have disappeared.

It's often been said in the four years of these Second Readings that it is a "pity" or an "injustice" that such-and-such a book is out of print or ignored or unknown or whatever. Well, as of now there have been about 70 of these reconsiderations, and I'd be hard-pressed to say that any book discussed therein is more undeservedly neglected than this one. Precisely why it has met this fate is difficult to determine, though it is worth noting that today not even O'Connor's more famous novels -- "The Last Hurrah" (1956), "The Edge of Sadness" (1961) and "All in the Family" (1966) -- are easily found in bookstores.

Perhaps this is a lesson in the evanescence of fame. For about a dozen years, from 1956 to his sudden death from a stroke at the age of 49 in 1968, O'Connor was one of the country's most popular and respected writers. He put a phrase in the language with the title of "The Last Hurrah," the story of a scurrilous but lovable mayor of Boston closely modeled on James Michael Curley; the movie adaptation of it starring Spencer Tracy was hugely successful; O'Connor won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for "The Edge of Sadness"; his books routinely were chosen as major book-club selections at a time when the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild and others still packed enormous clout. He enjoyed impressive sales and literary respect, yet now he's just about vanished, lost in the mists that enshroud John P. Marquand, James Gould Cozzens, Jean Stafford and other once-popular writers who certainly don't belong there. Go figure.

I was a teenager when "The Last Hurrah" was published -- I gobbled it up right away, loved it, loved the movie, too -- and when "I Was Dancing" appeared, I was a 24-year-old journalist apprentice whose first published book review was still more than a year away. I clearly recall that I read "I Was Dancing" because the New York Review of Books, a journal not normally hospitable to popular, upper-middlebrow fiction, praised it lavishly as "his best book." My 1965 Bantam paperback (75 cents!) has notes scribbled inside the back cover in what can only be my own illegible handwriting, but I very much doubt that I reviewed the paperback edition; maybe I taught it in a class, as in those days I was occasionally bitten by the teaching bug.

Whatever the case, I thought "I Was Dancing" was wonderful then and now I admire it even more. The passage of more than four decades has added a touch of maturity to my critical faculties (so at least I hope) and I am better able now to appreciate the skill and grace with which O'Connor moves from uproarious comedy to fierce confrontation and then to pathos. Perhaps I'm also better able to appreciate the snap, crackle and pop of O'Connor's dialogue, especially Daniel Considine's exchanges with his friends Billy Ryan, Father Feeley and Al Gottlieb.

These take place in a bedroom of Daniel's son Tom's house in a city that probably bears more than passing resemblance to Providence, R.I., where O'Connor was born in 1918 and where he grew up before moving along to Boston after World War II. Daniel is 78 years old, a veteran of half a century on the vaudeville circuit as "the best damn comedy dance act in the business." Now vaudeville is dead. A year ago Daniel showed up wholly unannounced at his 43-year-old son's doorstep in the middle of the night, declared that he just wanted to come in "for a minute" -- this after 20 years of total absence from Tom's life -- and he's been there ever since.

At first Tom and his wife, Ellen, enjoyed his presence, his stories of globe-trotting and vaudeville ("Orville Stamm the Strong Boy and Thelma De Onzo the World's Greatest Candlestick Jumper," et al.), his not inconsiderable charm. But gradually it became clear to Ellen "that the entertaining transient was in fact a self-centered and determined old man who had decided to make what was hers his own." Tom agreed, so he gave his father an ultimatum: After a month he will move to Saint Vincent's Smiling Valley for Senior Citizens.

Now it is the day of his departure, but Daniel isn't about to go. "Good God Almighty!" he shouts to Billy Ryan. "Old as I am, I damn near knocked him down! Waltzing Daniel Considine in an Old Man's Home!" For a month he has been in "upstairs isolation," his door closed, refusing to speak to Tom or Ellen, plotting his strategy. His only visitors are the three aforementioned friends and, less frequently, his unbearable sister Delia, with whom he has stupendous arguments, a quartet that leads Tom to conclude "that nearly everyone he had met or talked to in connection with his father had been very close to certifiable."

They're quite a bunch. Billy Ryan is a self-appointed "Free Lancer of Medicine" who turns up his nose at "the Official Doctors that have gone through medical schools and have diplomas and all that nonsense." Al Gottlieb was once Daniel's biggest fan -- "There wasn't a vaudeville show came to town he didn't see. He loved vaudeville. And if I played any place within a hundred miles of here, Gottlieb would be right there in the front row" -- but now has been reduced to "an air of almost radiant dejection" by his wife's and son's perfidies. As for Father Feeley, he really wanted to be a jockey but ended up in the priesthood, but that doesn't prevent him from complaining that the world is "a roaring farce" and "we're all two steps from the zoo!" He's tough and funny:

"I never liked vaudeville. By and large it seemed to me a collection of absurd people: middle-aged idiots with dyed hair singing love songs, Chinese laundrymen throwing Indian clubs at each other, malformed women doing indecent gymnastics. Farcical nonentities, all of them. You were an exception, Daniel. It always seemed to me that your performance was a marvelous burlesque of your co-workers. Consciously or unconsciously, you were indicating contempt for the whole imbecilic milieu. It was the kind of performance a sane man could enjoy."

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