“The Riverbend Roadhouse. Dine and dance. Drink liquor and make love. Slot machines and high dice. Name your sin and your favorite utensils. We’ll have it.”
Originally published in 1940, They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross is back in print again thanks to Mysterious Press. James Ross, who died in 1990, published just one novel and a few short stories before making a permanent career in journalism. They Don’t Dance Much didn’t exactly make a splash when it was first published, but the novel’s reputation as a rare gem is gaining momentum. My digital copy comes with a grabber intro from Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone):
So we are sitting in a greasy spoon, a tavern, a living room, talking about books that we love that didn’t catch a break, hard-luck books of such obstinate appeal that, though they died early, just won’t stay dead.
After reading They Don’t Dance Much, a very dark, gritty tale, it’s easy to make the literary connections between James Ross and Daniel Woodrell, and it’s clear why this “country noir” set in rural North Carolina in the depression years of the 1930s has a timeless appeal. The story is told in a no-frills, laid-back style by a young man, Jack McDonald, who’s inherited a small farm but is about to lose it thanks to $40 back taxes. Drowning in petty debt, including the cost of his mother’s funeral, Jack jumps at the chance at a job at a roadside tavern owned by local bad boy Smut Milligan who has somehow, and somewhat suspiciously, made good after disappearing for a few years and then reappearing with some cash.
When Smut was twenty-one or twenty-two he left, and I didn’t see hair nor hide of him for three or four years. Then in 1935 he came back. One Saturday afternoon I walked into the City Bowling Alley. He was running the joint just like he’d been there all the time.
He had some money–he was bound to have had–and it wasn’t long before he bought out the River Bend filling station. There was a murder down there. The boy that owned the place was mixed up in it and had to go to the pen. I heard Smut got it at a bargain.
Before he blew town, Smut Milligan had a hot and heavy relationship with town sexpot, Lola, the daughter of the local horse doctor, and in common with Smut, Lola also wanted the good things in life. Smut plans to hit the big time by expanding his filling-station business with a roadside diner, backroom gambling, and illegal corn whiskey. In addition, since the human vices are always lucrative, Smut’s crafty plans include several secluded cabins rented by the hour for adulterous assignations or for courting couples who’ve been drinking too much. Lola doesn’t have the same business opportunities as Smut, but she does have a killer body, so using her natural assets, she’s managed to snare the town’s richest man, Charles Fisher, the only son and heir of the region’s richest man who owns the local hosiery mill.
There’s nothing pretty or marginally decent about any of the characters in the book; this is a hard-scrabble town during the Depression with people ready and willing to do whatever it takes to get by, so there’s no quibbling about feeling guilty or wavering in a moral dilemma. A couple of the regular customers are Bert Ford, a reclusive man, a former strike buster, who’s rumoured to have a fortune buried in his back garden, and Wilbur Brannon, a disbarred doctor and former jailbird caught selling morphine as a sideline. Smut’s employees are a motley bunch of hard characters whose desperate lives careen into criminality; there’s Rufus, the cook, fresh from a chain gang, Catfish Wall, maker of bootleg corn whiskey, and Badeye Honeycutt as the bartender. The attitudes of many of the characters in They Don’t Dance Much reflect the racial attitudes of the times, so the black characters are ridiculed and seen, not so much at the bottom of the food chain, but outsiders tolerated for their usefulness more than anything else.
The town is run and controlled by various shady figures with an inflexible hierarchy in place. When Jack loses the family farm at the beginning of the novel, the scene is set for the idea that wealth and assets are sucked upwards, so Jack’s only means to make a grueling marginal living are seized by the government. Fletch Monroe, the town’s perpetually drunken newspaper editor who disappears on “three-week benders” is a tool for the moneyed classes, and his “news,” when it’s not months behind, reflects the interests of the local power-barons, who include the unsavory Smathers family who own and operate the Smathers Furniture and Undertaking Company as well as the Smathers Finance Company. By starting the Riverbend Roadhouse, Smut is trying to move out from the underclass, and become a man of substance. The Roadhouse, with its card games (some crooked), dance floor, steaks, and spittoons, has a hopping business, and that, unfortunately, brings attention to the joint. The sheriff “You do a little remembering for me and I’ll do a lot of forgetting for you,” turns a blind eye to Smut’s illegal corn whiskey operation. The banks are itching to call in any late loans, and then there’s Astor Legrand, a lawyer who has the local and state government in his pocket, and if anyone wants anything done in the region, Legrand gets a piece of the pie. Smut’s success attracts the murky, shadowy power structure in the county, and on the cusp of belonging to a different class of citizen, he knows it’s just a matter of time before someone tries to take the roadhouse away from him. Smut drags Jack into some very unsavory business, and this begins a sequence of violence and greed.
“If you start out on the bottom you got to be tougher than all the folks that’s between you and the top,” Smut said.
They Don’t Dance Much is one of those novels with a deceptively simple style–so simple, in fact that there are times when it’s easy to gloss over the underlying talent. Ross creates and gathers together a simmering cauldron of desperate characters with murder, greed and violence gnawing away in the shadows of the plot. When murder occurs, it’s grueling, hard work but casual violence–the manipulation of a body to a financial purpose:
It was lightning off in the northwest, but it was too far to hear the thunder. Most of the time it was still, but sometimes a little breeze would spring up and rattle the leaves on the oak trees. They sounded dry as dust. It was late July or early August, and the leaves weren’t supposed to sound like that then. But that’s the way they sounded; brittle. That was the way I felt that night too. Brittle, and dry-mouthed, and a little uneasy. Like I was going to do something that didn’t have anything to do with anything I’d ever done before.