Originally published in I964, William Melvin Kelley’s Dancers on the Shore comprises sixteen stories some of which recall the characters who brought his striking novel A Different Drummer so vividly to life. Its title refers to a lengthy quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness setting the tone for a thought-provoking read.
Several of the stories in Kelley’s collection stand alone but the majority are about two families – the Dunfords and the Bedlows – both living in New York, each very different from the other, and both with roots in the South where A Different Drummer is set. Of the standalones, my favourite is ‘Not Exactly Lena Horne’ about a quarrel between two widowers who’ve set up house together which threatens to get out of hand, one irritated by the stories the other makes up about out-of-state car plates, but perhaps this bone of contention is all they have.
The linked series begins with the Dunfords, a family already established in the black middle class, the parents’ plans for respectable careers for their children coming unstuck in unexpected ways. Kelley illustrates the gulf between them and their past neatly with a visit to seventeen-year-old Chig’s paternal grandmother where a long-simmering grudge surfaces. The Bedlows are much poorer, their father working in construction and given to lax discipline of the couple’s two sons while the mother finds ways to subvert him. The collection ends with a bittersweet story of Uncle Wallace Bedlow whose briefest of brief careers as a bluesman is a roaring success but ends with a bang.
Kelley’s book is touchingly dedicated to his grandmother whose love of her own occupation as a seamstress – neatly echoed in the collection’s cover- inspired him to pursue his dream of becoming a writer whose job it is to ask questions. His stories do just that, exploring themes of racism, class and identity with subtlety, leaving his readers with much to think about. Some are surprising given they were published in 1964: visiting an old friend, Eleanor Dunford witnesses an intimacy between Neva’s housekeeper and another woman, deciding to keep it to herself, uncomfortable with Neva’s dictatorial attitude towards the titular Aggie. The middle class Dunfords are neatly contrasted with the working class, less educated Bedlows who are subject to their own prejudices. In ‘The Longest Sidewalk’ Carlyle misinterprets a white woman’s invitation thanks to his father’s racism then becomes determined to derail his best friend’s proposed marriage to a beautiful, one-armed girl in ‘The Most Beautiful Legs in the World’. The final story is a masterstroke, bringing many of the book’s themes together. Altogether an accomplished, thoughtful collection which hangs together beautifully. It was Kelley’s first, apparently, and I’m hoping there are more in the publishing pipeline.
Riverrun: London 9781787478503 271 pages Paperback