They Don’t Dance Much: Greensboro’s Forgotten Classic by James Ross
A Review of They Don’t Dance Much, by James Ross
Mysterious Press, $14.99
It’s tempting. The past, that is. It’s tempting to think of the past as a better time, a simpler time, a kinder time. And despite all evidence to the contrary, many of us give in to that temptation. We long for the good ol’ days, the days with perceived less greed and less violence; a time less susceptible to the machinations of the powerful.
James Ross’s crime noir novel, They Don’t Dance Much, was published in 1940 (Mysterious Press reissued it in 2013), and reading his hard-boiled account of life in central North Carolina in the 1930s will cure any lingering longing you may have had for those simpler times.
Ross lived in Greensboro and worked as a journalist at the Greensboro Daily News (now the News & Record) when he wrote his only novel. He lived in Fisher Park and his sister Eleanor, a poet, married the novelist and fellow Greensboro resident Peter Taylor. They Don’t Dance Much quickly disappeared from public view, despite Raymond Chandler’s open admiration for it, but kept reappearing like a disturbing dream of unknowable psychological import. It has been republished five times, but still has yet to find the audience it deserves.
It might be because of its dark view of humans in general, or because of its shredding of the hypocritical veil so often worn by the small town pious. There’s really no character to root for in this murderous tale, but I suppose the narrator–failed farmer and now debt-ridden roadhouse cashier Jack McDonald–earns some of our sympathy for his recognition of the meanness surrounding him. He’s at least a less-willing participant in the worst of it, if hardly an admirable bloke.
No, the hierarchy of awfulness begins above McDonald’s station. Smut Milligan, bootlegger and roadhouse owner, and the various town bankers and bigwigs are the real villains, and while there’s some satisfaction in the vicious reward some of these town elders receive, the ugly order of things tends to remain intact.
They Don’t Dance Much is set in a fictionalized Corinth, North Carolina. There is a real Corinth (about 60 miles southeast of Greensboro), and Ross’s beat for the Greensboro paper was Raleigh, so he surely traveled through Corinth and found something suitably unpleasant about the town to work with. Ross gives no class of people a pass–this isn’t a novel of the sturdy honorable working-class surviving under the thumb of the elites. Every class of people is made up of individuals all out to screw–euphemistically or not–anyone they can. The wealthy are just a little better at it.
Of the “best folks class” Ross writes: “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 behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” Their behavior only gets worse once money is involved.
There aren’t a lot of women in Ross’s novel, and we don’t get to see what makes the one vital woman character–the wealthy, beautiful and, in grand noir tradition, treacherous Lola Fisher (Ross’s Fisher Park roots are showing)–behave the way she does. The characters, mostly white, also freely use the n-word, as these deplorable central North Carolina figures surely would have in the 1930s. Ross avoids any direct commentary on race, which leaves the novel and its steady rain of n-words on muddy moral ground, but the world of central North Carolina is seen through the narrator’s eyes, and Jack McDonald ain’t gonna have no enlightened view on race. No sir.
Apparently, James Ross hated being compared to the great crime novelist James Cain, but there is an undeniable link to Cain’s roadhouse classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. There’s also a clear debt to Hemingway. These lines seem nearly lifted in style and substance from The Sun Also Rises: “I took another drink out of the spider-webbed bottle. I looked at the bottle when I’d finished my drink. It was about a third gone. I set it down beside me on the ground. I was getting a little tight then.” I find Ross’s novel less-obviously plotted than Cain’s (and thus more appealingly atmospheric) and less intent on literary status than Hemingway’s (and thus less stilted and frankly more fun). But all comparisons are odious, I suppose, and They Don’t Dance Much doesn’t need the literary canes to stand up on.
As some seem bent on making North Carolina return to some imagined idyllic past, They Don’t Dance Much might serve as a reminder of the greed, racism and meanness of our collective history. It’s a high watermark in Greensboro letters as well. Perhaps we could get the whole city to read it with an appropriate mix of pride and recognition: We’ve had great writers. We’re no different than anywhere else. We’ve been vicious and vindictive. We’re no different than anywhere else.