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Reviews: Fiction

Early From The Dance
David Payne
Plume ISBN 0-452-28280-2
$14.00 US

There’s 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 Payne’s Early from the Dance begins in New York, it isn’t in any way shape or form a New Yorker story. Payne's novel is set quite firmly in the Carolina’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 Payne’s novel.

We never get what we want and when we do, it isn’t 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 there’s nothing solid to get hold of there. There was a genuine intense love and friendship between them all for a while, but now it’s 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, won’t 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 isn’t sexual, it’s 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 couldn’t 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 father’s store back in Killdeer, but he stands invisibly between Jane and A all the time.

Cleanth is impressed with A’s 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 isn’t 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 A’s and Jane’s 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, you’d better leave now, A, while there’s 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 people’s 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? Does Jane?

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 that’s the magic of David Payne’s work.

© Sam North December 2003



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