“Positively No Dancing”, a slim volume of stories by James Mason (no relation to the actor) lures us unceremoniously through the back doors and dark bars and understated prosaic beauty of everyday New York.
Those of you who are familiar with such writers as Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, and Jayne Anne Phillips are probably no strangers to a style of writing attributed to them called “Dirty Realism.”
Per Wikipedia: Dirty realism is a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine to define a North American literary movement. Writers in this sub-category of realism are said to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language.
Sometimes considered a variety of literary minimalism, dirty realism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description.
The first story, simply titled “John Flowers” starts out: “I was sitting across from my teaching gig on 13th street, waiting for my friend Stacey.”
To state that that paragraph was built with an economy of words would be an amusing understatement. And yet the reader is immediately pulled in. Yeah, John Flowers is just sitting there, waiting for his friend, but why?
One discovers he has an usual job working in an adult rehab center for the mentally disabled, a job he enjoys and feels he’s good at. A job where a woman gets on the center’s bus every morning and tells him that she saw him in her cereal, something he describes as a refreshing way to start the day.
Bars figure into most of the stories here, along with some pill popping and definitely some intended/unintended soul-searching. As the author states in the story “Dead Little Boy”…
The guys in the bar looked like the old guys in every bar, peering into their glasses, trying to locate their lives.
The sad, Sisyphean self-scrutiny continues with observations like these:
..in Ireland most of them (bars) are round so people are all kind of looking at each other and conversations start more naturally. As opposed to American bars where you sit shoulder to shoulder and spend the night staring at the reflection of the person you came to get away from in the first place.
Originally from Ohio, Mason lived in New York for over 25 years, well qualifying him to become a spokesman for the city and his Brooklyn neighborhood (Red Hook specifically), topics ranging from the gentrification of mom and pop bars to taxi driver banter.
An interview in “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York” highlights Mason’s colorful response to gentrification:
Well, you know what? Fuck you. The slaughterhouses were here before you were. The factories were here before you, and they employ hundreds of neighborhood people … Why the fuck did you buy a condo next to a chicken slaughterhouse in the first place? When I moved to Williamsburg in ’87, I didn’t look around and try to see how I could change it. I was in Rome. I tried to figure out how the Romans do.
Layered within the darkness of emotional paralysis and self-destructive behaviors, an unselfconscious humor nevertheless lightens much of the ambiance, like how we are when we first meet, as demonstrated in the third-person story entitled: “Pretty.”
This is the part you’re not crazy about, the small talk.
“You have pretty hair,” you say.
“Thanks,” she says.
“What do you call that color?”
In another story, “Ashes,” the protagonist’s tendency toward short-lived, somewhat doomed relationships starts out like anybody else’s with a girl he’d met showing up in a bar again:
She had on a deep blue eyeliner and some kind of white feather boa. She looked like she was playing dress-up.
Here we go, I thought.
We can relate to this character, because we’ve been there before. Maybe not with a girl or a white boa, but in a blossoming situation in which, although new, we recognize familiar colors and patterns. The indicators of what’s to come.
A while later, waist or chest or neck-deep in the relationship, the fun is gone and the fighting has begun, the catalyst John arriving late from the bar again:
I…took a bottle of bourbon…Touching it made things louder…I reached for her. The sound was hard, like something heavy dropping.
An L.A. Times article by David Ulin summarizes the collection this way:
John goes to a funeral; he talks to a little girl and her sister on the Brooklyn Promenade about the proximity of the World Trade Center to Heaven.
“Maybe angels shed feathers from their wings,” the girl suggests, “… [a]nd then the birds come and fly up and take the feathers and makes nests with it.” That’s a perfect metaphor for Mason’s book, which gathers the detritus of city life and spins it into something spare and beautiful.
I would agree. In fact, the spare and beautiful part actually reminds me of the end of the short story “Brokeback Mountain”:
There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.
In the conclusion of Mason’s “Nicotine Angel” John Flowers, remembering the small bit of compassion a nurse had shown him while he’d been detoxing in a hospital, returns there in search of something that remains, obviously, elusive in his life:
I stopped and lit a cigarette…I could just sneak back in and lie down. She’d have a bed waiting for me. I figured I’d smoke this one, then one final one, seeing as there wouldn’t be any more for a while.
That’s kind of how I feel about this collection and this author, considering nothing more, at least in book form, has been forthcoming from him. It’s almost like he dropped off the edge of the world.
I feel like I need to savor this little book, roll it around on the tongue, make it last, seeing as there hasn’t been, and probably won’t be, any more for a while.
Positively No Dancing, available here: https://squareup.com/market/freebird-books/