Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Dancin’ Man
Mary Ann Claud
Lystra Books, 2014, pgs. 272
Several years ago I received a review copy of Mary Ann Claud’s “The Dancin’ Man” in the mail. I put it someplace safe where I wouldn’t lose it and … well, you know how that story ends. In my defense, my “to be read” pile spans three buildings and two cars. So finally, after far too long a delay, I found the safe spot I had put it and dug in.
It was worth the wait.
It is a much better book than I had anticipated—and I had been looking forward to it.
Claud takes us into the world of a Carolina spinning mill mogul’s family at the end of the 1980s. The business is clearly moving to China, the writing is on the wall, and the Ward family matriarch just died, leaving her adult children in an acute state of “at each other’s throats.” Her son-in-law and protégé, Ted Brunson, has the additional problem that the only woman he has ever loved, his wife, Virginia, announces she wants a divorce on the day her mother dies. All the hallmarks of Carolina gentility are there, and if nothing else, a trip back to the Carolinas of the late 1980s is interesting. Claud touches on national politics (Reagan, tariffs), but avoids state-level political references. The food is the food of childhood. At almost every event are chicken salad, brownies, crab salad, coconut cake—it is a bit of a hunger-inducing trip down memory lane.
Ted is a poor kid who married well. Sadly, he idolized the life that the Ward family lived: country club, a house at Hilton Head, the large family mansion, garden club, St. Mary’s, debutante balls, an existence as one of the major landowners and businesses in town. (Think of the Wards as slightly less rambunctious than the heirs to the R.J. Reynolds fortune but with a lot of similarities.) Ted has brains, sports talent and work ethic; for a kid from a hard-working family that owns a hardware store, you just wish he could dream a little bigger—or at least that he desired a life with a woman who actually had some depth.
But, no. Sadly, he wants this world and this woman. So we, the readers, actually manage to find some empathy for him and even a little for the people in the world he has struggled so hard to fit into.
I will give Claud this: she actually makes the country club set look human and even possibly deserving of empathy. I grew up with that set here and never really found the basic human qualities that she insists are present in that particular sub-group of society. That she can convince her audience of this is a compliment to her as a writer. I did want to know what happened next with each of the characters, and I wanted that something to be good.
Perhaps it is the granddaughter, Volly, who comes closest to joining the human race and developing a conscience. If Ted had suddenly been struck by a deep pang of populism or guilt about racial injustice after all of his desperate social climbing, it would be incredibly unbelievable. But the granddaughter who rebels and goes out to communist San Francisco for a grad school degree in art? That is a character who could discover the world she grew up in is fake, rooted in institutionalized racism, classism and sexism to a point that is unacceptable to a modern woman.
The family saga unfolds slowly; it is told in flashbacks, intermixed with the gradual progression of a funeral, the reading of the will and divorce announcement. This structure brings us into Ward mills and their family. Ostensibly, “The Dancin Man” is about secrets and tries to be somewhat Southern Gothic. Though, it is a book classically structured by the three-generation saga at the onset, there’s a big reveal that changes things—a rift between Virginia and her oldest brother. It’s probably the weakest link in an otherwise brilliantly plotted, tight narrative. Claud employs all the tools: pacing, characterization, plot, atmosphere, and she wields them skillfully.
As I said, I had anticipated this book for some time, but it was worth the wait. It scores the highest praise I can give any book: I stayed up late because I had to know what happened at the end before I could go to bed. The characters stayed with me for days afterward, rattling around in my head, reenacting their scenes as I analyzed and re-analyzed them. Even though everyone, Virginia included, believes Ted married his wife for her money and social position, Ted is convinced he didn’t—that he loves her for her.
I wish Ted had aspired to something better (frankly, I wish Virginia had aspired to anything at all), but since he didn’t, at least he got a great writer to tell his story. Families, generations, a changing world and those who refuse to change with it—it is all in there. Pick up Claud’s book; you will be glad you did.