From The Dance
Plume ISBN 0-452-28280-2
Theres something magical about
growing up in the southern states of America. Time expands, attitudes
and manners still matter, unusual behaviour is tolerated and put
down to eccentricity (until it becomes a crime) and unruly passion
is central to youthful lives. Writing about that burning passion
and thirst for the boundaries of knowledge of life has been rich
pickings for Faulkner and of course Thomas Wolfe who also gave us
rich texts and complex stories from the south. Although David Paynes
Early from the Dance begins in New York, it isnt in any
way shape or form a New Yorker story. Payne's novel is set quite
firmly in the Carolinas and it brings it all vividly to life.
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In 1998 there
was an updating of Charles Dickens Great Expectations
starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow with De Nero as Magwitch and
Ann Bancroft a wonderful Miss Faversham if I recall. Reset in South
Florida and the contemporary art world of New York, one wonders if the
director Alfonso Cuaron didnt perchance happen across Early
from the Dance first published in 1989 when planning the visual
texture of the movie. This is not a criticism, everyone seeks inspiration
from many sources. Although the film wasnt popular, it was eerie
and captured both worlds well, the decay of one world and the falsity
of the other, and by coincidence, this is the world portrayed in David
We never get what we want and when we do, it isnt quite what we
want anymore. Somehow life teaches us all to be cynics and become disillusioned.
And that is the staring point of Early from the Dance. Three
protagonists. Jane, a young and beautiful divorcee, Adam but always
referred to as 'A' is thirty-two, an artist who peaked too early and
is suddenly out of favour with the critics and Gary, who is a ghost
at the dance, because he killed himself when he was in his early twenties.
The three were all raised in the tobacco town of Killdeer and all three
had great expectations of life. Gary and A, friends for life and Jane
coming along after high school. Gary always loved and protected Jane,
but her love for him was pure and theres nothing solid
to get hold of there. There was a genuine intense love and friendship
between them all for a while, but now its lost to Jane and A who
have gone separate ways.
When Aunt Zoe dies leaving A her rotting eleven bedroom mansion back
in Killdeer, A knows, that if he is to save himself from self-destruction
in New York, he must return. He knows that Jane will be there and wonders.
Wonders if she has gone to fat, forgotten him, and Jane, married, divorced,
a little bitter about men, wonders about A and all those things that
might have happened, but never did.
David Payne slips us gently back in time to the year they were all eighteen.
Those intense passions and immense feelings, the anger and hunger to
know everything that rides on the back of every eighteen year old, between
high school and College. This is a time when Gary still lives, Jane
is still his girl and A, loyal to his friend Gary, wont
even allow himself to feel anything for Jane, despite what he knows
in his heart.
Told with extraordinary flourish and zest, the hours, days and weeks
of summer flow so fast there is no time for complete sentences; he said,
she said, collide with each other with such speed you are propelled
along as A is seduced, not by Jane, but by Cleanth Faison and his female
partner Morgan, both in their thirties. A glamorous rich couple with
a secret, both in their late thirties, who have set up a classy restaurant,
called The Lost Colony at the beach. (Where Jane and A have come to
work for the summer- A as a lifeguard, Jane a waitress.)
Cleanth is a dilettante, an intellectual, a game player who resists
growing old with determination. He seduces A with flattery and life
poker. It isnt sexual, its one master seeking another pupil
to train in his ways and A recognises that he is being offered a portal
to wisdom. Morgan is offering him a portal of a different kind and a
sexual education a younger girl couldnt possibly know. Jane too
is seduced by Cleanth and she is flattered by his attention, all the
time aware that even though they are moving in parallel, she and A are
being drawn together. Somehow Gary is left behind, tending his sick
fathers store back in Killdeer, but he stands invisibly between
Jane and A all the time.
Cleanth is impressed with As physique and his father, a novelist
with one success behind him. A has never bonded with his father following
his seeming sexual betrayal of his mother who died of cancer. Cleanth
assumes the father-teacher-corrupter role and he and Jane are suckered
into a hedonistic life that is quite beyond their experiences so far.
This isnt world shattering. Two kids, two seducers, a summer of
love. There are thousands of films and novels that tackle the same,
but these characters are so intense, so real, so three-dimensional,
you slip so quickly into their skins and sense their frustrations, bewilderment
and pleasure with each new revelation. Cleanth, a wealthy Vietnam vet
who spent time in Fort Leavenworth military prison, is a tornado that
tears away the fabric of As and Janes lives and replaces
certainty with a manic house of cards. The abundance of coke fuels the
dance and incidentally makes the restaurant very busy. They have enough
warning. Cleanth declares on their first night God help us, the
monster is abroad, youd better leave now, A, while theres
still time, and take Jane with you, or else ... but they do not
heed the warning, monsters can be very tempting.
Early from the Dance by David Payne tells this story of love
and craziness that is the turning point in these three peoples
young lives. It is told with verve and a driving force, every thought,
every contradiction anyone ever felt about life and love is on the page
and to read it is to find yourself exhausted by the pace and physical
tension, yet always enthralled. Jane caught like a deer in the headlights
of three men is at a crossroads; A is only at the beginning of a realisation
about true love and Gary has already begun his journey to a dead end.
Each of them soaks up everything that life has to offer. It all seemed
so promising then. All seemed so worthwhile. That summer they learn
about fear and trust, pain and truth when Cleanth and Morgan take them
hunting boar. They also learn about betrayal and from the pain of that
moment find the love they had both denied each other. Who will tell
Gary? Does A have the courage to tell his best friend he betrayed him?
There are consequences- all of life's great decisions come from moments
like these and the directions you take can be unexpected.
Just how did Jane end up bitter and divorced and A the cynical artist
in Manhattan. Is there anything left of their love or has thirteen years
of bitterness dried that particular river?
To read Early from the Dance is to rediscover your first love
still remembers you and awaits your call. It is at once sweet and tragic
and thats the magic of David Paynes work.
© Sam North December 2003
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