Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No Exit: Dawn Powell’s Dance Night

Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (1930), a not-too-long novel set in nonexistent Lamptown, Ohio, presents a brutal portrait of lonely lives in a small factory town with railroad tracks. Powell shows us the town and its people through Morry Abbott, a dreamy teenager who wants to get the hell out. Morry’s father, Charles, is a traveling candy salesman whose eye and itineraries stray. He doesn’t treat Morry’s mother, Elsinore, proprietress of the Bon Ton Hat Shop, very well, so Powell gives us this, early on, “Elsinore knew that Charles Abbot was a weak, blustering man, but after the day he first kissed her these matters receded, a curtain dropped definitely between her and his faults.”

Life in Lamptown is claustrophobic. Geographically, Morry and his mother live near Bill Delaney’s Saloon and Billiard Shop, Bauer’s Chop House, and the Casino Dance Hall. On the first page, Thursday night music from the Casino drifts to Morry as he reads Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Psychologically, things feel even closer: when Morry goes downstairs that same night, he runs into his mother’s assistant, Nettie, who threatens to tell Elsinore that Morry has been smoking. The tattling really picks up when someone discovers what Mrs. Pepper, the corset saleslady, does in her travels.

It’s not enough to say these characters have strained relationships built on unfavorable premises and unstable lives. Young Morry sees girls—like Jen, the girl next door who has come from an orphanage, and her sister Lil—as abstractions to hold onto, not exactly a surprise given the example his parents, one cheating in reality, the other in her daydreams, have set. The Abbotts are typical: escape is what everybody in Lamptown seems to have in common, whether they want to leave town, a spouse, or their social class. Most escapes are temporary, just sales trips, all-night excursions after the Casino, and/or drinking.

The highlight of Dance Night is a Thursday night dance scene toward the end of the book. Powell has brought the reader to the Casino before for dances, but nothing’s quite like this, with shades of red and plenty of drink, plus words like wicked, carnival, violence, witchcraft, wild, and circus. “Carnival” comes up, complete with its usual masks and reversals of everyday life, just before Elsinore leaves the dance hall, shortly before something truly terrible happens:

Her head was splitting with noise but she wasn’t sure if the noise was outside or inside, so many strange confusing thoughts crowded through her head like masked guests at a carnival, exciting, terrifying, shouting phrases they would never dare whisper under their own names.

Dance Night, which is heavier on psychology than plot, is worth reading if only for Powell’s descriptions of her characters’ thoughts and their obsessions so linked to carnival and escape. Her language is beautifully crafted and expressive, scary and lovely at the same time, and Powell succinctly characterizes Lamptown’s people through Morry’s aspirations for real estate development. Morry wants to build houses that don’t all look alike but his venture fails and another man tells him, “Boy, you might as well make up your mind now as later that people don’t want anything pretty, and damned if they want anything useful, they just want what other people have. You take these cement porches--” Grasping the mediocrity around him and his own failure, Morry realizes that “Nobody believed in the things you believed but yourself…” Then he starts wondering what to do with himself next.

For more:

Dawn Powell: The America Writer, by Gore Vidal (The Library of America) [Warning: This piece reveals most of the major plot turns in Dance Night.]

Margo Jefferson’s review of Dawn Powell at Her Best (from Steerforth Press, the edition I read… a nice find at the library book sale!), The New York Times Book Review, October 19, 1994. I particularly like this observation: “Actually, [Dance Night] is as close to musical theater as a novel can get: all the people have their own cadence and language; they move along through the stuff of their daily lives, then suddenly burst into action or fantasy as if they were bursting into song.”

Up Next: Su Tong’s Boat to Redemption.

Image Credit: Photo of Dawn Powell, 1914, uploaded to Wikipedia by DanielVonEhren.


  1. Not a book I've heard of before but one it looks like I'll have to check out - if only for the descriptions, as you've mentioned. What a bleak existence within that factory town for these characters, it seems.

  2. Natalie, yes, it's bleak, though it's lively at the same time, and Powell is a wonderful writer. I'm looking forward to reading the other novel in the book, Turn, Magic Wheel, particularly because I also liked Powell's Wicked Pavilion, another New York novel.