I was a little hesitant to take this novel on when I received the author’s query. I wouldn’t consider the time period it covers, 1960–2011, to be “history” . . . yet. But my reticence probably had more to do more with considering the 1980s (my high school years) as “historical.” (interpret: I’m getting old!)
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Duke Don’t Dance. This story of a generation illustrated through the lives of seven long-time acquaintances (along with other complex relationships) reminded me just a tad of the movie “The Big Chill.” (For those who have never seen this 1983 hit, the plot revolved around a group of seven former college friends who gather for a weekend reunion after one member’s funeral.) The Duke Don’t Dance begins in 2011 at a wake—“. . . more an alumni party with a corpse in attendance than a memorial service” (p. 5)—where the major characters reunite, and the plot then meanders backward in time, concluding at the same event. The thread connecting the protagonists is their tenure at “The Ward,” a Washington, DC lobbying firm, the dull and dead-end company they were all associated with in one form or another as a result of their various individual journeys.
The major characters epitomize the lives of the “Silent Generation”:
. . . Americans born between 1925–1942, who grew up as the suffocated children of war and depression. They came of age just too late to be war heroes and just too early to be youthful free spirits. Instead, this early-marrying Lonely Crowd became the risk-averse technicians and professionals—as well as the sensitive rock ‘n rollers and civil-rights advocates—of a post-crisis era in which conformity seemed to be a sure ticket to success.” (http://www.fourthturning.com/html/silent_generation.html)
The Duke Don’t Dance takes a satirical, yet nostalgic, look at what made this generation tick. Major political and social events are integrated into the characters’ lives seamlessly, sliding smoothly into place, and connecting today’s readers with those of the “Silent Generation.”
The tone of the storytelling oozes cynicism and sarcasm, and the narration is clever, witty, and sardonic, yet at the same time ruminative and introspective. Both the language and tone illustrate the attitude that consume and surround our protagonists, and the trite, complacent phrase “it is what it is,” with its slight grunt of despair covered over with resignation, came to mind as I read.
The Duke Don’t Dance is heavily character-based, and the author’s ability to “get into” the protagonists’ heads is quite perceptive and accurate. He manages not only to illustrate an understanding of the inner workings of both sexes, which is quite a talent in this reviewer’s eyes, but also to express these ideas in a respectful yet colorful and humorous manner. The book is written in the third person, which lends the narrative a sense of detachment, yet is at the same time engaging and forms vivid images in one’s head. If I bumped into one of these characters in the street, I would recognize him or her immediately.
I chuckled my way through this book; its irreverent social commentary about a multitude of topics is grist for the mind mill. A few outstanding examples are a commentary on friendship between men on page 103, on civic arrogance on page 99, on women’s role in society on page 44, and on corporate advertising’s penchant for manipulating consumers on pages 197–98. And then there’s a modern twist of Dickens’ famous line: “The turn of the century was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times; it, more or less, just sucked.” (p. 213)
I can’t resist quoting the commentary on religious hypocrisy:
“For Rachel, corruption came not from breaking the Kosher regulations of Halakhic law, but from the exposure of the transgression. Ben was old school; Rachael was Old Testament.” (p. 10)
I laughed for a long time after reading this, coming myself from a background of similar religious hypocrisy. Many readers will appreciate this, I believe.
From the punchy description on page 106, one can imagine this formidable woman blocking one’s path on the street:
“He found Beth impressive, albeit in less than a conventional fashion. Wearing unnaturally long fingernails extending a good two inches beyond her fingertips to signal that she didn’t type, her diminutive form draped in a flowing black robe, a headscarf in the red, gold, and green color of the Ethiopian imperial flag dominating her sepia complexion, always carrying a black ledger labeled with her title as the foundation’s chief financial officer, and bearing an intimidating HP-35 calculator keyed with the back end of a gold engraved Sheaffer Triumph Imperial mechanical pencil, she was, in want of a better word, scary.”
And a little philosophical lesson on page 142:
“’Remember that saying about how people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?’ Ted said between bites to no one in particular, ‘Well, I remember the story about the African chief who bought a new throne for his grass hut, so he stowed the old one in his attic. It fell through and killed him. People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.’”
These descriptions are typical of the prose in this novel: clever, sophisticated, peppered with cultural and generational references, exhibiting a slightly amused, cynical, and critical attitude. It is prose to be devoured slowly, chuckled over, and contemplated. If I could, I would quote from every page of the book.
Anyone who has lived in either the academically proud city of Boston or amidst the political corruption of Washington, DC, will appreciate the author’s portrayal of the social climates in these cities. Being a native of Boston myself, and now living in the DC area, to me, the author’s descriptions ring true, both of the past (that I knew) and of the present, especially the descriptions of Washington, DC’s social and political atmosphere. DC is where jobless vets come to hawk their useless military skills, and transplants from all over the world form the majority of residents. Retrenching of the beltway bandits (contractor firms who work with the government) is currently happening, in 2012, just as it did in 1973. Nothing changes in DC, over decades or centuries; the government engines continuously churn out the same endless cycle of “expand and retract,” and The Duke Don’t Dance portrays the sense of hopelessness and resignation that surrounds the nation’s capital.
A few aspects of the book gave me pause, but don’t let these stop you from diving in head first. One was the opening chapter. The reader is tossed into the world of private jokes and quibbles from decades-old relationships long before she or he knows anything about these people. The reader feels quite outside the action—as if observing a random group of friends wildly chattering over coffee from the opposite side of the room—since she or he has not had a chance to develop an understanding about or a stake in the lives of the characters at this point. It is a difficult beginning, except in retrospect. The second issue is the abundance of generational references; readers, depending on their ages, will understand some and not others, and this sheer amount of references could be a distraction to the story itself. Finally, at times, the protagonists’ job descriptions become a bit long-winded, and interest waned until certain short sections were over.
Regarding the cover and the title, to be very honest, my first impression was confusion (and unease with the incorrect verb in the title). The title made no sense to me, and the cover, even less. Halfway through the book, however, the meaning was revealed. Now that I understand, it does makes sense and I see why the author made the choices he did. However, neither the title nor the cover would likely entice a reader to pick the book off the shelf in the first place. There were very few typos, misspellings, missing words, etc.; the book is well presented and edited.
Combine a more generally appealing cover with the witty prose, alter the first chapter slightly to bring the reader closer to the protagonists, and we have another winner! I enjoyed this novel very much, found it clever and funny and appreciated the ride back in time on the backs of this unheard generation.
And I must wonder, after turning the last page, if this story is autobiographical or purely fictional; it is so poignant and real, especially the ending….
The Duke Don’t Dance by Richard Sharp. Published using CreateSpace, 2012, 257 pp. ISBN: 978-1467949163. Price: $12.95 (US)
Disclosure: I agreed to review this novel at the author’s request. I have no personal relationship with the author.