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.

Monday, September 5, 2011

When Hell Is Other People: Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, a very satisfying novel about British life during World War 2 that was first published in 1947, is one of the funniest and most melancholy books about communal dining and living that I’ve read in a long time. Hamilton focuses on a woman known as Miss Roach who has taken up residence at the Rosamond Tea Rooms in Thames Lockdon, a fictional suburb of London, after bombings in London.

The Rosamond Tea Rooms, however, isn’t as pastoral as it might sound: Miss Roach has her own dingy-sounding room but at mealtime she must contend with the likes of Mr. Thwaites, a blowhard who loves goading her. Here’s what one tenant thinks of Mr. Thwaites: “Mr. Prest thought that the old man was a noisy, nattering, messy piece of work who ought to be in a mental home.” This observation sums up Hamilton’s arch tone; he’s unsparing with his characters, even Miss Roach, the most sympathetic, who is the recipient of all sorts of verbal abuse.

During the course of the book, Miss Roach, who works for a publisher and is (or maybe wants to be?) something of bluestocking, meets an American lieutenant from Wilkes-Barre and looks forward to a German-born friend, the comb-pinching Vicki Kugelmann, moving in at the Rosamond Tea Rooms. I don’t think it spoils much to say that neither relationship works out very well, particularly given the amount of cocktails—sometimes a gin and French for Miss Roach—everyone consumes at the local pub and the lounge at the Rosamond Tea Rooms. Christmas is especially hellacious. There’s lots of cutting, childish conflict in the book, psychological homefront conflict that parallels the horror of war.

Perhaps the most palpable effect of the war on the residents of Thames Lockdon is the blackout. Hamilton beautifully contrasts darkness with light, juxtaposing opposites such as crowds/solitude and even, far in the background but omnipresent and wearing on everyone’s nerves, Axis/Allies. On page one, for example, Hamilton first calls London a “crouching monster” then brings the reader to Thames Lockdon. “The conditions were those of intense war, intense winter, and intensest black-out in the month of December.” When an evening train arrives, though, Hamilton offers a phrase that initially sounds almost optimistic, “Torches came flashing on and going out like fireflies. These fireflies went away in all directions in an atmosphere which was one blended of release, of caution in the blackness, and of renewed painful awareness of the cold.” Miss Roach is among those fireflies (two bugs in one?), and she makes her way to the Rosamond Tea Rooms through a town whose architecture features “the jostling of the graceful and genuine and old by the demented fake and ye-olde.”

Miss Roach is, as I mentioned, the most sympathetic of Hamilton’s main characters, one of the slaves of his title, a person for whom too much contact with other people really is hell. She finds a bit of quiet and aloneness in the last book’s final pages, after seeing the afore-mentioned Mr. Prest perform at the theater. In one of the book’s key paragraphs, Miss Roach wonders “what exact motive Mr. Prest had in being alive—if, and by what means, this seemingly empty, utterly idle and silent man justified his existence…”

I particularly like that phrase because one might wonder the same about Miss Roach: though we occasionally see her read manuscripts and know she was a schoolmistress, Hamilton gives her a horribly unflattering name and seems to deprive her of a rich intellectual life. Miss Roach even grows increasingly petty as Mr. Thwaites and Vicki Kuglemann torture her more, even thinking Vicki “had always been a filthy eater, by the way, but that had been a mere detail.” Still, poor Miss Roach—a human spot of light who recognizes the difficulties of literal and metaphorical darkness, as well as the war—just wants to be treated with respect and left alone to face life’s real dangers rather than mean teasing, something I think most of us probably consider crucial aspects of existence that require no justification.

Disclaimers: The Slaves of Solitude was a gift from a friend who works in a bookstore. Thank you very much! I know the book’s publisher, New York Review Books, through discussions about translated literature.

Up Next: Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption.