January 2009

Erin McKnight

fiction

Dancehall Road by Marion Douglas

Tragedy doesn’t always roar through a town. Its implications don’t have to batter storefront windows in order for events that seem ripped from the headlines of some other community’s newspaper to reverberate. Sometimes, tragedy hangs suspended on the outskirts of a town -- where people go to lose themselves. Despite the sheltered environment, however, this grim act’s consequences will plummet into a shared experience that features, at its very depths, a “mushy bottom.”

Set in Ontario, Canada, Marion Douglas’ Dancehall Road attests to the murkiness a community often unwittingly perpetrates. In the town of Flax, lives bump against one another in a rhythm sustained through generations of gentle drifting along a predictable course. For Douglas -- and the lake setting she so adeptly stirs in this expansive novel -- such motion is as worthy of exploration as the interpretation of any underlying agitation. Throw a stone into Minnow Lake and ripples result; surge water from this body’s center and the contents “bloated with slime... rotting” that have lurked underfoot for decades of shimmering summer are expelled.

In keeping with the sort of object that dislodges at season’s end from a once-resort town’s sleepy lake, the much-feared root or log that travels to the surface does not bode well for people who use boats to prevent the feel of slimy debris against their naked skin. For the residents of Flax, such a revelation -- bobbing on the gray, slicing surface like a swollen corpse -- no doubt suggests “the worst” of the lake’s secrets. This mud-covered mystery, then, may emerge as easily as a simple statement of opinion as it does a public proclamation of condemnation, capable of destroying a Flax son’s reputation. For, just about all the town appears to have cultivated and harvested in recent years is a state of lethargy in which inhabitants eke out an emotional subsistence.

In the prime of his development, Adrian Drury emerges as the character around which Douglas’s cast of intimate strangers orbit. A simple declaration assures this pivotal role: “I really lay the blame at the feet of that Drury boy”; the same declaration responsible for propelling the book’s action, and disturbing the lake’s dregs. Though serving to represent the values of a town on the brink of its own adulthood, Adrian isn’t the quintessential protagonist whose maturation renders other characters silent. In Douglas’s controlled cacophony, every voice must sing in order for the reader to distinguish the underlying, sometimes-reticent susurrations of truth. In Flax, the '70s have just begun; a new crop of youth is stretching upward, and Adrian is leading the call for a less-insular reality that will manifest as a communal loss of innocence.

Dancehall Road’s parallel narrative recounts a multi-layered chronicle spanning almost three hundred pages. Despite the account’s volleying back and forth between the townsfolk, Douglas’s control is faultless, measured; it is the people trapped in her narrow confines that emerge, independently, as desperate to share their stories. And Dancehall has them all: the adulterer, the aging-soldier-turned-pervert, the teenage outsider and emerging lesbian, the bumbling policeman, the father-and-son duo that embark on an electric-chair tour of Florida, the dependable dentist, the gossiper... and then there is the family at the center of this whole “Dance Hall mess.” With one child dead at the novel’s start, his accident having nothing to do with Adrian, and another whose death embodies Flax’s somber state and has everything to do with Dancehall’s principle figure, the Deckers’ misfortune is at the obscure center of Douglas’s gloomy lakebed.

Predictable in their mundane lives, yet imbued with the humor and slightly off-kilter spirit that makes them, as small-town inhabitants, so fascinating, the people of Flax -- with Adrian leading the chorus -- are a welcome intrusion to the reader’s frenetic 21st century existence. Though the small-town mystery hardly constitutes unexplored literary territory, Douglas’s achievement in Dancehall Road rests on her ability to reveal the dastardly act a few hundred pages in, yet maintain the reader’s attention for the same again. The tragic event may not live up to gruesome expectations -- in terms of graphic brutality and revelations of Flax inhumanity -- yet, Douglas’s evaluation and reader reaction to the town’s people is visceral: a splash doesn’t need to be large to affect the water’s broad surface; the body that drops doesn’t have to be weighed down in order to sink and agitate an eerily calm bottom.

Indeed, in Douglas’s novel, the reader is caught just below the lake’s surface where the truth penetrates with a warmth resultant on a writer genuine in her measured exposition. This reader, however, is acutely conscious of the necessity to remain in motion so as to prevent sinking into the gloomy depths and coming face-to-face with the dark contents of a community. In the midst of the frantic treading, however, Dancehall Road should be savored; the townspeople of Flax will benefit from the reader’s careful attention as they relate their tales, no matter the perceived banality. Given enough time, Flax folk will get to the point, and like a summer vacationer who stays a few days in a place they can’t wait to escape, these residents seem equally satisfied to watch the reader leave. For, Douglas’s characters get the last laugh: closing the book, this reviewer has the distinct impression that the town of Flax is glad to get back to things and how they’ve always been.

Dancehall Road by Marion Douglas
Insomniac Press
ISBN: 1897178557
258 Pages