Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: The Death of a Disco Dancer, by David Clark

When we reviewed Wasatch  back in early February, the publisher of that collection, Zarahemla Books, offered us a review copy of David Clark’s novel, The Death of a Disco Dancer.  I was a little hesitant to accept, due almost entirely to what I think is a pretty lackluster cover. (I am a shallow, shallow man- If only we had a nice, catchy adage to warn people against judging inner content by outward appearances that would apply to the book world.) Ah well, more on that in the postscript below.

Anyway, I was finally able to clear the deck for Disco Dancer  this past week, and couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.

This book will lull you into thinking you’re reading a reverie of sophomoric highjinks, funny enough to keep your inner 11-year old in stitches. But before you know it, you’re steeped in a poignant coming of age story that deals with themes of love, family, faith, forgiveness, and death. Clark alternates between the main narrative, the summer joys and pitfalls of Todd Whitman’s Arizona youth, and intercalary chapters set in the present-day, as Todd and his siblings gather to say goodbye to, and bury, their mother. The intercalaries provide further meaning and a touching backdrop to the main story of the novel.

That main story centers largely on the excitement and fears of growing up, and that timeless question of what to do when your dementia-stricken grandmother starts showing up in the middle of the night and supplanting the cherished faces of her past with pictures of disco fiend John Travolta. I’m not even joking. A number of different plot lines converge under the dulcet strains of Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” during the Hello Dance on Todd’s second day of Junior High. It is the perfect emotional climax for the story, and one that brought my own past vividly before my eyes.

The main narrative is also peppered with a number of side stories that deliver color and context to the few months of action we see playing out in the book. Early on, the vignettes carry an air of Family Guy cutaway gags, inserted for their own purpose rather than to move the story forward- a ghost story at a Fathers-and-Sons Campout, and a detailed run-down of activities forbidden in the pews during church services are just a couple of examples. But on the whole, these asides help to flesh out the world where the story takes place.

As for that world, the Mormon milieu that might make some readers wary, I’ll just say that there is no tortuous exposition or preachy explanation to be found anywhere. This book will appeal to anyone who’s ever been eleven years old. And since it’s the story of a pre-pubescent boy, there’s nearly as much mention of the Dallas Cowboys and the Phoenix Suns as there is of the family’s religion. Any question you might have about certain terms or topics can be answered by the short glossary Clark provides at the back of the volume. It’s a book that should not be pidgeon-holed as something it is not. What it is, is a compelling peek into the world of a 1981 pre-teen, who’s doing his best to figure life out as adulthood barrels towards him.

The Death of a Disco Dancer  is a poignant and entertaining read, with characters you can't help but care about. And as we pointed out yesterday, Clark’s easy, colorful prose is at once hilarious and heart-rending. Do yourself a favor and read it.

***Postscript: Please, please, please don’t judge this book by its ‘Dean Wesley Smith-esque’ cover. Looking at it, you’d think you were picking up an absurdist horror parody or a cheeky forensic science romance. I’ll be the first to admit, the cover is terrible. The book is anything but. Read it and see.***

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