James Ross: They Don’t Dance Much


“[Ross] showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression—that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time—and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery.” —Bill Morris, The Millions

Reading They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross, one of the old classic Southern noirs recently published, brought me back to the world I grew up in during the 50’s; or, at least a version of that world in another South. Strangely a part of it reminded me of an older step-brother and his high-school sweetheart who ran off and married a rich man. There’s a character by name of Smut Milligan – and, yea, it’s a nickname – whose from the wrong side of the track, dirt poor, and yet a great athlete. Excepting he’s a sucker for the curve ball, which put him at the bottom of the heap of hopefuls from the Scouts.

What’s fun about this work by Ross is it’s real, gets under your skin, makes you remember things: one feels the truth of it, that things – if they didn’t happen this way, they could’ve happened just like this because in almost every small town down south they did happen all the fucking time. Growing up between West Texas, Northern Louisiana, and Southern Mississippi as a child I’d seen things similar to what Ross describes about his neck of the woods in North Carolina. There’s a sense that no matter what life throws at you, or how degraded and corrupt the world gets, you can take it; and, not only take it on the chin, but you can overcome it. It’s a sense that one may not be able to counter it in the singular, we’re all born with certain limitations, certain circumstances; and, yet, we can stand above them, master them in our own way and in our own time. That’s the thing about country people they may get their share of hard knocks, but they don’t cry about it, they don’t sit around and castigate each other or the world for their lot; or, if they do their of the worse lot, the type of humans one can sense a mile off, smell coming at you. The no good kind of people who are takers not givers. And, in that world it comes down to that: givers or takers, there are no other kind. One cares or doesn’t, one helps or not; one does what one is: that’s character, not fiction. Action speaks louder than words: a cliché that’s still alive and well in the southern climes. It’s not all peaches and roses, let me tell you. There’s a lot wrong with some people in this world, but we don’t sit there and blame the whole lot for a few bad apples. That’s the way it is in life. We do what we are, what we must.

As Brian Greene said of Ross: Sometimes the characters and settings of a novel are so perfect that the author pretty much can’t go wrong with the story. Tell me that you’ve got a 1940 work of noir fiction set around a North Carolina roadhouse and that features characters with names like Smut Milligan, Catfish Wall, and Badeye Honeycutt. Add that moonshining, card and dice games, love triangles, bare knuckles brawling, and such figure in regularly. Mention that the book was written by an enigmatic guy who only authored the one novel and that it has been praised by the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Chandler, and George V. Higgins. And okay, okay, go ahead and ring me up, cause you had me sold just with the roadhouse, Smut, Catfish, and Badeye.

After Smut hears about his lover getting married to the richest man in town whose father owns the only factory the narrator, whose pov sets the tone and stage of this work tells us:

“If Smut Milligan was cut up about the way things turned out, he never let on. He didn’t even pitch a drunk when they went to New York and Canada on their honeymoon. That was always Smut: stand up and take it.”

That sense of stoic resolution and defiance seems to sum up a lot about the southern man. Most people are dirt poor, work their asses off, and get little back; and, yet, they don’t get pissed off about it, or get even, but realize it’s the lot in life for their kind. They go on, they survive, they get out of life what they can, independent and honorary as that might be. Some people don’t like southerners, seem to love to stereotype them and castigate them. But it’s like anything else in this fucking universe, you didn’t ask to born, you didn’t ask to be raised up in this slice of hell, you didn’t remember choosing the people one’s name is attached too, and fuck all if you give a shit what people think about your kind.

Sometimes I remember that world, because its still there in the dark recesses of my mind like a moccasin or rattler waiting for me, waiting to reach out and show me once again that there’s no real escape. One might leave the South, but it isn’t about to leave you. I’m reminded of that every time I open my mouth, that southern drawl forges its own methodologies, its own mythologies in other people’s minds.

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much

James Ross (1911-1990) was an author of noir fiction. He published They Don’t Dance Much in 1940, and though this hard-bitten story of life and death in a small town roadhouse won acclaim from authors like Raymond Chandler and Flannery O’Connor, it did not sell well.

His follow-up novel, In The Red, was never published, and Ross turned to writing short fiction for magazines like Collier’s, The Sewanee Review and Argosy. In 1970, he became a highly-regarded literary agent, and 1975 saw the reissue of They Don’t Dance Much, which saw the book become truly popular for the first time. Ross died in 1990 in North Carolina.

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