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Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon May 2, 2013 - 4:48pm

'They Don't Dance Much' by James Ross

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Synopsis: In this classic country noir, featuring a new introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a small town farmer takes a job at a roadhouse, where unbridled greed leads to a brutal murder

Jack McDonald is barely a farmer. Boll weevils have devoured his cotton crop, his chickens have stopped laying eggs, and everything he owns is mortgaged—even his cow. He has no money, no prospects, and nothing to do but hang around filling stations, wondering where his next drink will come from. As far as hooch goes, there’s no place like Smut Milligan’s, where Breath of Spring moonshine sells for a dollar a pint.

A bootlegger with an entrepreneurial spirit, Milligan has plans to open a roadhouse, and he asks Jack to run the till. The music will be hot, the liquor cheap, and the clientele rough. But the only thing stronger than Milligan’s hooch is his greed, and Jack is slowly drawn into the middle of Smut’s dalliances with a married woman, the machinations of corrupt town officials—and a savage act of murder.

Author: James Ross (1911–1990) was born in North Carolina, where he worked as a reporter for the Daily News (Greensboro) for many years. He wrote his first and only novel, They Don’t Dance Much, in 1940. The book, considered “country noir,” was praised by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Flannery O’Connor. During the decade that followed, Ross published several short stories in literary journals such as Partisan Review, the Sewanee Review, Collier’s, and Argosy while he worked on another novel, In The Red, which was never published.

Discussion has officially started!

I'm a sucker for noir stories. Anybody that knows me could tell you that. And this one is a classic. I'd never heard of James Ross or his one novel before Rob Hart brought it to my attention. After a bit of research though, I was glad he did. This story sounds awesome and the writing sounds even better. Anybody questioning giving this one a shot should read this essay here:
http://www.themillions.com/2010/10/james-ross-and-the-agony-of-the-one-hit-wonder.html

I'm looking forward to this one. I think it's going to be our oldest story we've story that we've discussed. So go pick it up.

Buy It Here!

Get to reading!

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 17, 2013 - 8:57pm

I know we're still a few weeks off on this, but just wanted to share a few articles on the book. 

There's a great piece that just went live at The Washington Post from one of Ross' former colleagues, which you can read here

And here's the piece I wrote for LitReactor about publishing the book, and a little bit more about the history of it. 

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon May 30, 2013 - 10:53am

Not sure if it was one of the things Rob posted, or if it was an article I found while researching this book, but - it seems to get compared to The Postman Always Rings Twice quite a bit. Ross's style sure is a lot like Cain's. But it's also his own.

I'm a few chapters in and I'm loving the style of writing. It's minimalistic. There are some great sentences in here. I'm trying to stay just disconnected enough to remember to highlight a few of them here and there.

I'm really surprised he never ended up writing another book. I wonder where he could have gone if he continued his writing career.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 30, 2013 - 11:10am

Definitely Cain-ish. Also a bit like Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which is another fantastic, slim piece of noir. 

Ross did write a second novel that was never published, called In The Red. I don't know much about it, but I'm working on that...

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon May 30, 2013 - 11:34am

Cool.

I believe I've seen the movie of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but I've never read the book. I'll have to look into it.

LizardKing's picture
LizardKing June 2, 2013 - 12:46pm

Finished reading the book a couple days ago. It was very good and right up there with other work in the same style. Although it wasn't quite up to Jim Thompson's high standard. 

I went through a phase a few years ago where I really got into old noir (Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) and it was good to read something like this after such a long break from the style.

My only complaint is that there was a bit too much over explaining going on by the characters. It's like Ross thought everything needed to be spelled out as clearly as possible to the reader.

I especially liked that the story didn't have one of those ridiculous happy endings where everything falls into place perfectly and preposterously for the protagonist that you find in a lot of the old noir stories.

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 3, 2013 - 11:33am

Man, I'll have to get into this after I finish Sharp Objects from Gillian Flynn. I've had it in mind since Rob talked about it on the podcast hearing these comparisons make me even more anxious. My undying love for Postman is well-documented, and it's the book that made me want to write noir. Horses is a terrifying book, and I especially love that it's set against a dance competition. Fantastic writing.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 3, 2013 - 3:21pm

Discussion has officially started! I really hope a lot of people give this book a shot because it's great.

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Ludwig Neveu June 3, 2013 - 3:40pm

I just realised that I have the book in French under the title "Une poire pour la soif". I hope to read it quick enough to participate in the discussion.

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 13, 2013 - 9:37am

Bought this two nights ago. Having trouble finding time to read it, but it's pretty cool so far. Heavy influence of Cain and Hemingway, but with more twang, I think.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 13, 2013 - 12:56pm

Totally agree, Nik.

I'm slowly making my way throuh it still. I just haven't had much reading time at all lately - for like a few months now really

I'm over half-way though. And I have a bunch of stuff highlighted that I thought was worth mentioning.

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NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 14, 2013 - 2:09pm

Interesting. I'm 25% through and preeeeety much nothing has happened. Granted, I can see the architecture set up for later events, but it's moving pretty damn slow. Which is possibly reflective of the North Carolina mindset, as Jack notes several times that he's just bored. The slow pace might be a byproduct of me reading this to calm down while I've got four other major things going on in the background, if that makes any sense.

Either way, I'm curious to see how this goes. If it hadn't come via trusted rec (or, say, I'd found it on a dimestore rack instead of pubbed by Mysterious Press) I'd be drawing close to giving it up for a more interesting read, probably up to 40 or 50%.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 14, 2013 - 5:33pm

Things start picking up at just about the halfway mark if I remember right. There are still chapters where nothing really happens though.

The stuff I highlighted - it's not like great plot points. Just some interesting writing.

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 18, 2013 - 5:52pm

Mentioned this in an email to Rob, but I just finished the book and mostly enjoyed the hell out of it. At points I felt it lagged, possibly becuase I'd attributed so much Cain to it, but that ending was damn devastating. One of the things I think was overlooked was how funny Ross oculd be. Some of the lines were, if not laugh-out-loud, at least blackly hilarious. All in all, not something I'd put in my "I have to tell everyone I know about this book" list, but one more people should read. Maybe like a character study of a pre-war noir novel. I liked a lot of the nihilist tendencies of the narrator that weren't particularly en vogue at the time, except for people like Horace McCoy. Or maybe I haven't read enough 30s crime.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 18, 2013 - 6:05pm

I'll hopefully be finishing tonight. I don't have much left. But you hit the nail on the head with everything you said.

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 18, 2013 - 8:15pm

I first read the book six months ago, so my recollection is a little vague. I can understand the criticism, about the lack of momentum. At the same time, it didn't really bug me--I was hooked from beginning to end, and I've been finding it harder and harder to get hooked into books lately. To me, while it was a little wordy, there was something immediate about the narration that I really liked. 

Maybe it's me. It's very interesting to hear this perspective. 

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 19, 2013 - 6:15am

Overall I loved the book. Those last few chapters made it for me. Before those, I thought the book was good, but needed more. While it wasn't quite Cain or Hammett (who's my favorite noir author), it was still really good. It's really hard for me to form a solid opinion of the book though because of how much I liked the last 1/4 compared to the first 1/4.

It dragged for me too - but just for the first half of the book. Once Jack and Smut do their thing, I think the tension really kept the story moving forward nicely. The first half took me twice as long to read as the last half - maybe even longer.

There were a couple things that I think could have been tightened up a bit. Maybe the book needed one more edit? I don't know. But an example of that was when Jack was searching for the money. He missed the obvious spot and then had to go back because that spot was bugging him (or something like that if I remember right).

There were some great lines in there though. This one here is a good example of the writing. While it's nothing extradinary, I just really like writing like this:

Anyway they started running around together. That didn't suit Lola's mama. Smut wasn't nice folks and she put her foot down. So Lola had to learn how to climb out of windows late at night.

And this too:

'I didn't know the sheriff drank,' I said.
'He don't drink much. Just takes a littel for medicine when he has a cold.'
'You think he's got a cold now?' I asked.
'I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,' Smut said.

I thought that the forshadowing of their mistake was a little obvious.

SPOILERS

'Give me his gun,' he said. I gave it to him and he snapped it open to see if there were any cartridges in it. Something fell out; it sounded like an empty.

 

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 19, 2013 - 6:18am

The narration is definitely engaging. I don't know if it was the colloquial tone of the voice or the vivid scenes he set, maybe the dialect of the characters that rang true, but something was compelling about that voice. I might also be biased because I just read three thrillers to get in mindset before starting a book, and Michael Kimball's Big Ray, which I couldn't put down. Either way, I did enjoy the book a lot.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 19, 2013 - 7:10am

Did you notice that the voice kind of changed over the course of the book?

In the beginning he sounds a little less educated and then towards the end, the writing is a little better. And then when he writes those letters, his writing is near perfect.

This might all just be in my head due to me enjoying the last half of the book so much more.

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 20, 2013 - 5:23am

Hmm. Didn't notice it offhand. Might've been too that the voice is very distinctive initially, then you kind of get used to it. Those letters were well-written though, with the obligatory ain't thrown in.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 20, 2013 - 5:38am

It's a shame more people didn't jump on this one...

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 20, 2013 - 10:17am

Books like this are a tough sell.

It's got a bit of a built-in hook, because this is the only book Ross ever published, and it got praised by all these big names.

Still, it was a little slow out of the gate until the Washington Post piece came out. Then we had a huge surge in sales.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 20, 2013 - 1:47pm

That's good to hear!

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 21, 2013 - 5:55pm

I think you nailed it with this line, Rob: "From page one... you know these people are on a collision course with tragedy. It's just a matter of how they get there." That is the epitome of Ross to me. Though the churning of inevitablility isn't quite as loud as it is in Cain's crime novels (and easier on the cynicism than McCoy) it's just a present, which maybe makes it more dangerous, if that's the right word. Ross sort of lulls you into security with his NC patois, then crushes your face with beer bottle.

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this June 23, 2013 - 8:10am

"Ross sort of lulls you into security with his North Carolina patois, then crushes your face with a beer bottle."

I kinda want to use that as a blurb...

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 23, 2013 - 8:28am

"Ross sort of lulls you into security with his North Carolina patois, then crushes your face with a beer bottle."

-Some Writer No One Has Heard Of, But Trust Us, He's Right About The Book Being Awesome, So Please To Be Buying It.

Tell Otto I can start my promotion position Monday.

Anthony from NC's picture
Anthony from NC June 23, 2013 - 10:20pm

Hello all,

Forgive me for barging in on the conversation, but I have been researching James Ross for the past three years and wanted to bring your attention to some further reading about him, if you're interested. Just this week my 22-page biography of Ross was published in North Carolina Literary Review. Ross's family lent me his typewritten manuscripts and consented to interviews for the research. The article is not online, but you can learn about the journal here: 

http://www.nclr.ecu.edu

Pieces you can read online include my essay on the Oxford American site referenced in the Washington Post review: 

http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/sep/11/essay-james-ross/

Bill Morris, a colleague of James Ross at the Greensboro Daily News, has written two pieces for The Millions website: 

http://www.themillions.com/2013/04/james-rosss-they-dont-dance-much-retu...

http://www.themillions.com/2010/10/james-ross-and-the-agony-of-the-one-h...

Finally, here is a brief essay on the Integrated Media blog I wrote about how happy I was to see Mysterious Press reprint the book: 

http://www.openroadmedia.com/blog/2013-04-15/Lost-Great-American-Crime-N...

Best wishes,

Anthony Hatcher

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 24, 2013 - 12:01pm

Those are great, Anthony. Thanks for posting.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon June 26, 2013 - 5:30am

ebook - $7.99

paperback - $13.32

as of right now...

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and June 29, 2013 - 3:34am

Good discussion, guys. Pete, thanks for picking this book and Rob, thanks for rescuing it from obscurity.