‘It was amazing about girls, how lofty and complacent they became when they got out in public with a man – any man – while a fellow shrank and felt ridiculous and prayed for the ordeal to end. It was amazing about women anyway, Grace over there, snickering behind her hand and Jen, stony-faced, remote, and Nettie, bending over his knes to pick up a handkerchief, fussing around in her seat, brushing her ankles against his and then hastily drawing them back, pressing her plump arms against him, then moving primly away…. God, how he hated the whole lot of them, Morry thought, the way they knew how to make a man squirm from old Mrs Delaney on down to the littlest girl. It was their function in life, making men feel clumsy and stupid, that was all they ever wanted to accomplish….’
Dawn Powell’s novel, Dance Night, is concerned with various forms of rancour. Set in Ohio, in a small town sprung up around the dominant factory, it assembles a cast of naturally disadvantaged folk, adolescents, orphans, neglected wives, desperate young women and a whole lot of men who are obliged to live with the death or gradual decline of their ambitions. Everyone would get out if they could, if they had the money, or the education or the courage to do so. The railway bisects the town and the continuous thunder of the carriages is a temptation and a taunt that ultimately dies away into distant dreams. And so the inhabitants of Lamptown carry on with their diminished hopes and unruly desires, trying to squeeze what life they can out of small town claustrophobia. Smoking, drinking and doomed relationships take centre stage, with all excitement focused on the Thursday nights at the casino, where the dance master, Mr Fischer, offers classes and acts as master of ceremonies.
This is fundamentally the story of Morry Abbot, the most awkward, ungainly and emotionally disadvantaged of them all. He’s a young man from a dysfunctional family in a novel that doesn’t know of any other kind. His mother, the milliner of the Bon Ton hat shop, he loves, and Elsinore, in her absent, empty way is fond of him, too. But her hands-off care is no counterbalance to his father’s ugly scorn. Charles Abbot is no good, a travelling salesman with a woman in every town, he returns to his family ever few months to exercise his demonic power over them. He sends a message in advance ‘The Candy Man will visit you’, as a threat rather than a promise. Elsinore loathes her husband and has fallen into a deep and all-consuming fantasy about Mr Fischer that keeps her locked inside her own head for most of the time. Nettie is the vicious young woman who also works in the store, and who acts like the worst kind of younger sibling to Morry, telling tales on him, ruthlessly pointing out his faults, demanding his punishment from his parents. Small wonder, then, that Morry wants out. He has a head full of romantic ambitions about becoming rich and famous and a disquieting yet compelling relationship with the young orphan girl, Jen St. Clair, who lives over the way. He’s attracted to Jen because of her native courage and determination. And the worshipful audience she pays him makes him believe that one day he might amount to something.
If there’s a dominant theme of the novel it’s the quest for love in a strata of society depicted as being emotionally crippled. It begs the question of whether love is directly influenced by freedom, optimism, hope, potential. In the absence of these things, when self-love isn’t a viable goal for many of the novel’s inhabitants, love becomes something else altogether; competitiveness, lust, the engagement of fascinated hatred. There’s a curious quirk that emerges time and again in Powell’s characters, whose behaviour becomes a negative blueprint for the thing they think they want. In this way the extravagance of Morry’s dreams match the intolerable constraint he suffers under, just as Nettie’s endless carping is an expression of her desire for Morry, and Elsinore’s fantasies about Fischer are there to balance out her horror of her husband. The drive for life repeatedly implodes in the protagonists of Dance Night, mutating into some dark, twisted alternative.
Whilst this may sound a sad or unappealing tale, it isn’t like that at all. Powell writes exquisitely, and the ruinous landscape of Lamptown is transformed in her hands into constant action and vitality and a rich, evocative sensuality. Those nights at the dance hall are glittering jewels strung across the narrative, with the taut thrum of desire acting as the wire that holds them together. The novel shows how even under the most reduced circumstances, people find ways to thrive and to flourish, how even prisons of the soul provide security and stability and dependable company. And besides, if the inhabitants of Lamptown were free to act as they wish, they wouldn’t have their dreams; if there’s one thing this story insists upon, it’s the power of dreams to keep us motivated, patient and hopeful.
I very much enjoyed this book, but was intrigued to find, yet again, another episodic narrative. Not a great deal happens in the novel, even though there’s a death, several couplings and friendships broken and made. It’s strange, the sensation of stasis that dominates, but perhaps it’s a consequence of Lamptown being itself the most important character in the story. Lamptown may grow and even become prosperous, but there’s no sense that it will change or develop; it won’t be anything more than a one dimensional working class town that invites its inhabitants to dream and desire, to graft and to wish, and to never grow up. I was going to write a whole lot more about episodic narratives, as I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but I’ve run out of space here. So I’ll devote the next post to it. In any case, I’ll be seeking out more of Dawn Powell’s work. Apparently her later novels are satires, and I can imagine her darkly amused voice working well in that context. Thanks to the Slaves (where you’ll find several more reviews of this novel) for bringing another fine author to my attention.