When the romantic lead is named Smut and he owns a white-trash roadhouse, and the femme fatale is named Lola and drives a “Nile green roadster,” you know they didn’t meet in church. The outskirts of a Depression-era mill town provide the setting of James Ross’ classic country noir, They Don’t Dance Much, and when Smut Milligan turns his filling station into a nightspot that sells moonshine and runs crooked card games, it’s not difficult to see that sex, money, and bad, bad decisions will soon follow.
Published in 1940, They Don’t Dance Much has been chasing popular literary validation like a strumpet looking to be crowned Miss America. The novel gets respect from writers and aficionados, but it’s the type of book that not too many readers come across without searching: usually by those who read backwards into a genre to see from whence it all came. In this case, begin with Daniel Woodrell and work your way back to the late William Gay, then to Cormac McCarthy and to James M. Cain, and you’ll find it.
The book has held up well. Its prose is clean and direct, and there is plenty of irony, giving Ross’ yarn the authenticity and accuracy of something that is a true reflection of life. Mysterious Press/Open Road Media’s recently released edition of the novel contains an insightful introduction by Daniel Woodrell that is worth the price of admission. In it, he incisively summarizes Ross’ style and that of all others like him as “classically laconic, wised up American prose.” (The introductory essay to reissued classics is a literary art form in itself, and Woodrell’s gem is a sparkling example.)
They Don’t Dance Much is a fly-on-the-wall look at desperation and depravity, during a time when folks with low expectations made for the pot of gold, rainbow or not. After losing the family farm, Jack McDonald becomes the fly when Smut hires him to help him run his new enterprise. McDonald is naïve (“I was green as a stalk of corn, and the first two days Smut had to show me my way around”), but he’s no dummy. He gives us our first taste of Lola, a former flame of Smut’s. Now married to Charles Fisher, the richest man in town, Lola is a temptress with aspirations toward the downward side. The imagery depicting her foreshadows her cheapness of character, her small-town hussy flash, and her lack of respect for Charles.
She had on dark glasses and she was sunburned brown as a penny. She had on some sort of short-sleeved jersey and it looked like she had left her brassiere at home. She was taller than Charles Fisher.Yeah, They Don’t Dance Much is that kind of book: smoldering and lubricious as you could get (in 1940) without having to conceal it in a brown paper wrapper.
They Don’t Dance Much could be subtitled The Education of a Country Nihilist, because if anybody comes out of this book with anything learned it’s McDonald; and what he gets out of it is not to expect too much out of life, no matter how rosy circumstances might appear. He’s an accomplished second banana, and as Smut plods along, rekindling an affair with Lola and fleecing mill workers of their wages, Jack begins to figure things out. Money gets tight as Smut racks up gambling debts and falls behind in payments to the bank and crooked politicians. Here’s where McDonald earns his keep: He learns that Bert Ford, a big customer with no visible means of support, has a small fortune in cash hidden on his farm. He lets Smut in on the secret, and a plot is hatched. The two torture and murder Ford for the money, then dispose of the body in a vat of fermenting beer. McDonald wants his cut so he can leave, but Smut is adamant about sitting tight until things blow over.
When Jack overhears the sheriff tell Smut that he needs to help him find a fall guy, Jack begins to sleep with one eye open. Afraid Smut’s money problems will drain his share, he plots to steal it. The two fight, then Smut tries to poison Jack. Jack almost becomes resigned to getting beat (“A murder is a bad thing. Here I was mixed up in one and it looked like experience was all I was going to get out of it.”). But finally he figures out how to use the rope Smut put around his own neck and hasten nature to take its course. A few anonymous letters to Charles Fisher, tipping him off to Lola and Smut, brings forth the bloody rage of a cuckolded husband, but no money.
They Don’t Dance Much was reissued in 1968 by the South Illinois University Press, with an afterward by George V. Higgins. In it he said, “James Ross was a writer out of his season. ... He advanced the craft of fiction as far as it could be advanced when he was writing, and nobody was paying attention. Very few, at least. Life’s hard, life’s very hard. It’s harder without luck. But that of course, was what he was telling us.”
Although it’s not read as much as it should be, They Don’t Dance Much hasn’t exactly been forgotten; it still seethes, it still smolders, it’s dirty (Higgins said that what Ross put on the pages most writers, including his hard-boiled contemporaries, put between the chapters), and as a result of all that the book might have suffered. But here it is, risen again in 2013--at a time when no one is very squeamish, especially about acts between humans that have become so commonplace they can be reported on the 6 O’Clock News or feature in “reality TV” shows. It’s time now for the prose to be the center of attention instead of the fictional scandal that moves the plot along. This year’s new edition of Ross’ novel offers an opportunity for a younger generation of readers and writers to give it a go and learn how much can be said by saying just enough.