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They Don't Dance Much This Depression era novel uickly sank from view when it was first published in 1940 A new edition was released in 1975 with an introduction by George V Higgins a crime novelist who was then at the peak of his career But even with his endorsement the book was still little noticed Perhaps the third time will be the charm and the book has now been re released with an introduction by Daniel Woodrell a great writer perhaps best known for his book Winter's BoneThe main protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald Jack is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunkHe buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan Smut's joint is on the outskirts of the small town of Corinth at the junction of River Road and Lover's Lane Smut sells gas and a little food along with his bootleg whiskey He also has some gambling going on in the back room and he pays off the sheriff who looks the other waySmut is an ambitious man and over a drink he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house and expand his operation to include a dance hall tourist cabins and a real restaurant He offers Jack a job as his cashier and having no other viable prospects Jack accepts the offer which includes room and boardAny reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes taking one ill advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetimeIt's hard to imagine how a book this good could have possibly been overlooked for nearly seventy five years Ross writes beautifully and completely immerses the reader in the sordid world he creates He's particularly good at portraying the class distinctions that existed in a small rural southern community at this time and he's created a cast of believable and very memorable charactersThis is a book that will remind many readers of the stories of James M Cain particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice Ross is certainly in Cain's league; his story is just as gripping and he certainly deserves to be remembered along with the other of the best writers of his generation They Don't Dance Much will certainly appeal to any reader who likes his or her crime fiction dark and dirty Thanks to Otto Penzler the Mysterious Press and Daniel Woodrell for bringing it back to life SynopsisblurbCalled by Raymond Chandler “a sleazy corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town” this tough realis­tic novel exemplifies Depression literature in the United StatesFalling somewhere between the hard as nails writing of James M Cain and the early stories of Ernest Hemingway James Ross’s novel was for sheer brutality and frankness of language considerably ahead of his reading public’s taste for realism untinged with sentiment or profundity The setting of They Don’t Dance Much is a roadhouse on the outskirts of a North Carolina town on the border with South Carolina complete with dance floor res­taurant gambling room and cabins rented by the hour In the events described Smut Milligan the proprietor seeks money to keep operating and commits a brutal murder My takeAccording to the list of books I've read on Goodreads I read this before 2010 with a 35 rating which was when I started logging what I was reading My pre 2010 read list was compiled from memory I kind of expected bits of this to come back to me as I re read it but I never got the sense of recovering old ground False memory maybeA slight post Depression era tale set maybe a year or two before it was written 1940 and in essence it's a story of two men Times are still tight Jackson McDonald is in debt and is about to lose his family land due to unpaid taxes Smut Mulligan runs a filling station and also sells illegally produced alcohol Mulligan has big plans to turn his station into a big roadhouse and money earner Smut offers Jack a job as a cashierThe roadhouse is a fair success in a relatively short space of time but Mulligan has borrowed heavily to get things off the ground The income coming in doesn't allow for enough to easily pay the bank notes and whoever else he owes Solution murderOne of the patrons of the bar rumour has it Has a stash buried somewhere on his land Smut enlists Jack in his plan without actually telling McDonald what he's up to Jack is basically duped Bert Ford gets tortured killed and disposed of eventually and not without a few close shaves and the pair dig up a sum of money Not uite the expected amount but in the region of about 12k Mulligan the lead takes charge of the money promising Jack his share when things cool downMoving on a bit The sheriff is due for re election and is feeling the heat over the investigation into the disappearance and suspected murder of Ford Evidence at the scene of the confrontation between the three suggests Ford met a bad end with robbery the motive He needs a body in the jail to keep his job Jack keeps getting blown off by Smut who he suspects is dipping into the proceeds to keep the wolves at bay and the roadhouse afloat His share of the money is always coming on the never neverThe book develops into a battle of wills between Smut and Jack Their initial partnership albeit a lop sided one developing into a relationship of real enmity and distrust Something has to giveOn reflection I enjoyed this one than the last time I read it assuming I did read it and probably have a higher regard for it a week or two one from finishing it than I actually had at the time I was reading it At the time I kind of felt it was a bit slow We or less live through every day in the lead up to the dramatic event and the aftermath of it A bit of distance and maybe the pace is perfect as Ross gradually creeps the tension into the narrative with Mulligan and Jack McDonald circling each other like a couple of sharks trying to sense a weakness and hone an advantageThere's a lot of small town detail of the period which shines through in the characters There's the successful businessman Charles Fisher with the trophy wife Lola; there's Astor LeGrand another of influence and power with a eye for an opportunity to further his interests hopefully at the expense of Mulligan if he can't repay his debts Lola herself is flighty and bored with her husband and playing a dangerous game with Mulligan And there's the contrast with the have nots; Smut's staff working for food board and lodgings and whatever change he throws their way His black handyman and booze brewer Catfish always bumming smokes and rides and sips from the bottleA few of our lesser characters come to play an important part in the eventual climax of the book4 from 5They Don't Dance Much was the only novel James Ross ever had publishedMore thoughts on this one can be found over at The Dark Timehttpelginbleeckerblogspotcom201Read in February 2019Published 1940Page count 304Source owned copyFormat paperbackhttpscol2910blogspotcom201903 A murder's a bad thing Here I was mixed up in one and it looked like experience was all I was going to get out of itSmut Milligan is a bootlegger who opens a roadhouse and finds himself drowning in debt Creditors are closing in and he stands to lose it all But waitthere's a rumor that one of his customers keeps a large stash of money hidden somewhere on his property So Smut takes his trustiest employee Jack McDonald along to pay the man a visit It turns out to be a very unsocial call and soon the men share a dark and deadly secretMoney changes everything and life uickly becomes a game of who can turn the other guy in and collect the cash WITHOUT implicating himself Some of the characters who hang out at the roadhouse love to debate whether or not crime pays The answer is it can but possibly NOT the person or persons who commit the crimeThis is a great Southern noir read that should be considered one of the classics of the genre Thanks again to Mantan for bringing this one to my attention They Don't Dance Much is a noir novel set in 1930's North Carolina It was the only book its author James Ross ever completed and after reading it one wonders why Ross did not go on to produce many novels The book was out of print for many years after being published in 1940 and Mysterious Press wisely chose to re publish the book in 2013 with a forward by Daniel Woodrell Apparently the book received encomiums from Raymond Chandler and Flannery O'Connor upon publication but even accolades from such august writers did not enhance book salesThe book is a great first effort and it probably helps that Ross was a journalist with excellent writing skills and good descriptive powers The book has been lumped into a category called Country Noir but this is mainly because it is set in rural North Carolina If it had been written by James M Cain it would simply be labeled as a noir novel The book's story line is pretty simple The narrator is a failed cotton farmer who goes to work for a local thug who has plans to turn his small gas station into a roadhouse He fulfills these plans and hires the narratorfarmer to work as his cashier The roadhouse turns out to be a great success and draws many customers But success leads to envy and scheming and the desire for greater success and what ensues is a complex interplay between the town's power brokers and the club's owner and some horrible events occur during the machinations of the roadhouse owner Smut and the town's elite who are trying to wrest the roadhouse from his controlOne of the book's main points is that as with much in life things are not what they seem in this placid little North Carolina burg and the town is not so simple as someone passing through might suspectIt is hard to know for certain why the book never entered the canon of noir fiction Many great books have fallen by the wayside for seemingly no reason If I had to guess though I would say that some of the reason for the book's fading into obscurity lies in its accurate depiction of North Carolina speech circa 1940 Every black person is called by the N word and this is done of a matter of course than as a direct slur Ross is simply writing in the dialect of the time and a Southerner would easily pick up on the nuances of black white relations which are far less black and white pardon the pun than an outside observer would be able to observe Without understanding the complicated and obviously unjust race relations of the time a casual reader might get the impression that Ross is a racist or that the characters are monstrous people Some of them ARE monstrous people but less so from the way they talk than by their actionsThe book appears to have been written by a novelist well steeped in the noir genre One reason perhaps that Ross did not follow it up is because he had no character other than the narrator who could realistically have continued on in any type of seuels and the narrator taken alone was not a strong character like a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe who could drift from story to story with ease Still Ross clearly had the talent to continue to write tales in this genre and I'm glad Mysterious Press recognized the book as a neglected noir classic and decided to release it again Like the best noir fiction it explores the darker side of humanity without trying to explain it and gives an accurate slice of life depiction of life in rural North Carolina in the late 1930's James Ross 1911 1990 said by William Gay to be “the man who invented Southern noir” wrote only one novel They Don't Dance Much The story is set in a North Carolina backwoods town in the Depression years and as the story opens the narrator Jack Macdonald has just lost his farm through non payment of taxes Jack spends a lot of his time hanging around the garage and roadside store run by his friend Smuts Milligan Smuts has some big plans for the store and soon Jack is working for him as Smuts expands his business into a roadside diner and dance hallBut business turns out not to be as good as Smuts had hoped and soon he's looking for alternative sources of income The novel's curious idyllic backwoods charm is interrupted by a harrowing torture and murder as Smuts tries to learn the secret of an old recluse's hoardIt’s a novel of rare brilliance Raymond Chandler described it as “a sleazy corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town”When Daniel Woodrell reviewed Joe R Lansdale’s Mucho Mojo 1994 in The New York Times he cited as Lansdale’s predecessors James M Cain Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson but went on to say “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned though his one novel They Don’t Dance Much 1940 might be the finest of the lot” Originally posted at Black Alibis There’s an uncharacteristic slow build up to this novel of southern noir set in the outskirts of a Depression era mill town in the north of North Carolina In that build up Smut Mulligan turns his filling station into a roadhouse that sells moonshine and runs crooked card games it’s not difficult to see that things will soon turn nasty The narrator is Jack McDonald who is out of work having just lost his family farm and throughout the story is something of a hanger on It is a window into the desperation and depravity of the day a tale of folk with low expectations still trying to get rich uick Sometimes the characters and settings of a novel are so well described that the author pretty much can’t go wrong with the story What is not appealing about 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? But despite the funny character names this is grim and serious stuff Add to that illicit stills card and fixed dice games love triangles bare knuckle boxing the stifling heat of the Carolina summer and it’s a winner Ross was a mystery guy though an enigma; he only authored the one novel and that had praise from the likes of Daniel Woodrell Raymond Chandler and George V Higgins Smut Milligan was a couple of years older than I was but I knew him pretty well His first name was Richard but everybody called him Smut I don’t know what his last name really was He didn’t know either He was adopted by Ches Milligan and his wife when he was a baby Ches Milligan used to run a grocery store in Corinth His wife ran him When she had his spirit broken—from what they tell me—she took a notion to go to an orphanage in Raleigh and get a baby there She wanted a boy baby She liked to tell males where to head inHe was a tough kid in school and played hooky a lot In the fall he’d traipse off to hunt muscadines and in the spring he went fishing in Pee Dee River and sometimes in Rocky River He gave the Milligans a lot of trouble The old lady probably wished she’d let him stay in the orphanage But she died when he was about sixteen From then on Smut didn’t have any argument about what he did Called by Raymond Chandler “a sleazy corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town” this tough realis­tic novel exemplifies Depression literature in the United States Falling somewhere between the hard as nails writing of James M Cain and the early stories of Ernest Hemingway James Ross’s novel was for sheer brutality and frankness of language considerably ahead of his reading public’s taste for realism untinged with sentiment or profundity In his brilliant Afterword to this new edition George V Higgins author of the recent best seller Cogan’s Trade pays tribute to Ross for his courage in telling his story truthfully in all its ugliness The setting of They Don’ t Dance Much is a roadhouse on the outskirts of a North Carolina town on the border with South Carolina complete with dance floor res­taurant gambling room and cabins rented by the hour In the events described Smut Milligan the proprietor seeks money to keep operating and commits a brutal murder Originally published in 1940 this down and dirty tale of murder and mayhem is well deserving of a second publishing It is labeled as country noir which is spot on; interesting that the term probably wasn't even around when it was written I keep wanting to refer to it as a potboiler but it is so much better than that With the name of Smut Milligan you just know the guy is going to be a mighty unsavory individual Yep he is Any idea about someone who is called Badeye Honeycutt? As you might guess this fellow has a glass eye that either doesn't fit uite right or is slightly cocked Sad to say Badeye's 'good' eye is also slightly cocked You can take it from there Nuances fall by the wayside here the author pulls no punches with the unforgiving nicknames of his characters and they are fun Mean but fun Slop Face for a pimply faced young sprout and Crip Wood for a townie with a bad limp The book is chock full of uaint collouialisms 'Making a fuss like a hog over a slop trough' maybe you have heard the phrase maybe not but the picture it evokes is crystal clear How long has it been since you have heard it said that so and so gives you the creeps? It's in here There is nary a redeeming character in the tale and hopefully no one to whom you can relate Yet the story works beautifully This was a goodreads giveaway So glad I got the chance to read it It's a winner Before McCarthy before Gay before O'Connor and Farris Smith and Rash and Woodrell there was James Ross's They Don't Dance MuchPublished in 1940 the original southern noir novel stands the test of time very well It tells the story of Jack McDonald a failed farmer who takes a job at a roadhouse in the small town of Corinth NCHe falls under the wing of the owner Smut Milligan who eventually embroils Jack in a brutal murderThe novel brilliantly depicts the semi hillbilly community which is a mix of drunks flashy rich guys and downtrodden wives Ross combines a compelling plot with highly evocative writing and wonderful eccentric charactersFrom what I can tell the book has had a turbulent history being shifted from publisher to publisher and never doing too well I guess some of the racial language may be a little fresh for the modern ear but it is very much a novel worth reading and is at the heart of all the southern noir country noir and southern gothic writing that has followed it I found that the book had a slow start but picked up about half way through I liked how the narrator started the book the same way that he ended the bookwith pretty much nothing He played his role well The stuff in between held my attention causing me to think maybe things might work out for the narrator Also for a book written in 1940 I thought it was a pretty good little novel with some well placed surprises This book is full of characters that are never going anywhere and excel in the art of missed opportunities

  • Hardcover
  • 304 pages
  • They Don't Dance Much
  • James Ross
  • English
  • 27 November 2016
  • 9780809307142

About the Author: James Ross

James Ross 1911–1990 was an author of noir fiction Born in North Carolina 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 liter