Monday, 24 November 2014

I Was Doncing by Edwin O'Connor


How did it happen that a talented writer like Edwin O’Connor could drop into the slough of ‘who’? He won a Pulitzer prize in 1962 for the novel The Edge of Sadness which it was felt was really for The Last Hurrah from 1956 which was made into a film starring Spencer Tracey and brought O’Connor a fortune. His book I was Dancing showed that riches hadn’t curdled his powers though fairy gold tends to be misspent. What does a bachelor want with an 11,000 sq.ft. house in a prime location in Boston recently on offer for a final reduction of 10 mil?

‘Hurrah’ (pub.’61) and ‘Dancing’ (pub.’64) are the only two of his books that I’ve read and they are both excellent. I would regard the latter as the more finished and sustained fiction that gives full expression to his fine sense of humour. Daniel Consadine a ex-vaudeville performer with his dancing comedy act. ‘Waltzing Daniel Consadine has at the age of 77, a serious climateric, turned up at the house of his son Tom. When the story opens he has now been there for a year and feels that this ought to be his final berth though it is 20 years since he last saw his son. He was a good provider sustaining the family and putting Tom through college and law school by touring incessantly. He was an absent father but is making up for it with a pervasive and invasive presence that is driving Tom’s wife frantic. The novel opens with his daily stunt of waking at 7A.M. moving around, singing, tap dancing but not rising until noon:

The truth was that his father lived in a nest of small and maddening mysteries. Tom knew, for instance, that very soon now the soft tapping would stop, it would be succeeded by footsteps, lightly padding across the floor. Then would follow the other sounds: a window closing, water running, a snatch of song. A shoe would drop, a toilet flush. All normal morning sounds, all sounds of someone getting up for the day. Only — his father was not getting up for the day. His father was not getting up at all: whatever the day, he did not rise until noon. So then, why this fake rising? This false start, day after day, which meant nothing and accomplished nothing — except, of course, to snatch the sleeping from their sleep?

It is of course the demand for an audience that he regards as his due that has worn down his welcome to a nub of tolerance. The charm and the quiver of stories have faded into the light of a common daily trial. With encouragement from the wife, Tom a month previously extracted a promise that Daniel would leave for an Old Folks Home - Smiling Valley. This he plans to frustrate and precisely how his entourage are left wondering. He has a number of visitors, eccentrics all, who gain entry to his room which he never leaves by using a special knock. There’s Billy Ryan, homeopath quack, Father Frank Feeley, retired priest and devotee of the track and old time fan Gottlieb:

And he had, for now there was a knock on the door. It was a soft, apologetic knock; it was also the code knock.
"What the hell did I tell you?" Daniel said triumphantly. "That'll be Gottheb."
He went quickly to the door and opened it. Standing there, looking at him, was a small, elderly bald man. He was carefully and expensively dressed; he was unmistakably Jewish; there was about him an air of ahnost radiant dejection. His hands hung down by his sides; as the door opened, he raised his right hand an inch or so in greeting.

Fr. Feeley is a misanthrope of exceptional capacity. He advises young priests how to keep away pious bothersome ladies. He is also a fan:

"Well, I was your fan for an entirely different reason," Father Feeley said. "I liked you: I never liked vaudeville. By and large it seemed to me a collection of absurd people: middle-aged idiots with dyed hair singing love songs, Chinese laundrymen throwing Indian clubs at each other, malformed women doing indecent gymnastics. Farcical nonentities, all of them. You were an exception, Daniel. It always seemed to me that your performance was a marvelous burlesque of your co-workers. Consciously or unconsciously, you were indicating contempt for the whole imbecilic milieu. It was the kind of performance a sane man could enjoy."

Delia his sister is a resident of Smiling Valley, the beckoning fate that he refuses to submit to. She is inclined to gloat. What will happen on this day of days? Will he go or will he stay? They have managed to book a corner room for him somehow, the son is going to pay for it. You oscillate between thinking that his limpet like clinging to his rock is unjustified and considering the son Tom and Ellen his wife cold deniers of the demand of blood ties. This is a jewel.

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