Zarahemla Books is, in my opinion, the most valuable brand in Mormon letters today. I can’t think of another publisher (of any type) whose books I’m as likely to pick up just because of who them. And while I may never finish Hooligan (even though I have recently repented of my Douglas Thayer skepticism), Zarahemla keeps proving my faith in them well placed.
They’re the Pixar of MoLit!
David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer is a brilliant book. I was lucky that I started reading it the same day my classes had to take a mandated test, freeing me from teaching responsibilities. Before I was a quarter of the way through, I had disturbed my students with merry snorts—and had had to hide my teary eyes—as I tore through the pages in utter glee, trying to read as much as I could before I had to collect their work. In the end, I finished the book in two calendar days. Which is just not something I do anymore. (Of the novels I read last year, the only ones that can compete in terms of my reading speed are Dan Wells’s and Robison Wells’s*—it’s been a good year for Mormon fun, it would seem.) But Disco Dancer was unlike those propulsive books in that, well, for one thing, it’s not a thriller. It’s just a regular old story about a family.
Which gets to why I’ll be buying a copy for my mother (even though it says “nuts” and “balls” far too often for her taste): This book made me recognize my love for my mother in a way I too rarely do. Now, several days after finishing it, I’m still riding that buzz.
I want to say less about the story in this review than the backcover does (I didn’t read it and I’m glad I didn’t), but suffice it to say that the book is about more than one summer in the early ’80s. It’s about life and the passing of time and it manages to hit that passage through several generations with a simplicity and artistic integrity I admire. Because the book plays games with time (both flashbacks and flashforwards) that most books fail at. That Clark played and won speaks to his skill as a stylist.
Speaking of style, how about that title? How about disco in general? Now, disco doesn’t have a big role to play in the text of the book (though adolescence and disco? what a metaphor!) except on a symbolic level, one layer of which Clark spoke to Wm about. And the book’s “Playlist” (read: table of contents) is all disco songs.
(Aside: I made a Spotify playlist of all the songs on the Playlist—or nearly all of them. A couple are missing from the Spotify library and a in a couple couple other cases I may have picked the wrong song. I think Phil Collins is probably the wrong guy, for instance.)
But what are this book’s strengths? Let’s start at the end, shall we? Clark has the fortitude to end the story where he should and not ten steps later when all the reader’s question could have reached a more tidy resolution. He has captured a time and place so perfectly it feels like documentary footage of 1981 Scarsdale, Arizona. He’s funny. He drew tears without being the least sentimental. Both the laffs and the tears are fully earned by real characters engaging in real life. He knows the power and the value of a good tangent (with the exception of the bear story, every digression is just the right length and helps us understand Who What and Why with elegance). He engages with the ambiguity of all things stereotypically good (religion) and bad (darn teenagers!). He never drives a joke into the ground until it is no longer funny yet still rising from the grave. He deals with topics heavy (with lightness but not undue lightness—for instance the pathos of dementia with its uncomfortable humor) and light (without ignoring their own little gravities).
Which brings me back to disco. We often dismiss it now, but let’s remember: those were real musicians playing real instruments and playing music so fun the world danced despite itself . . . until it realized how ridiculous it looked and slunk back into a dark corner. Like a budding teenager.
What I’m most curious about is what a 2012 teenager reading this book will think. Because in some ways I feel unfairly primed for this book. My mother is currently caring for her mother, just as the protagonist’s mother is caring for her mother. I work with teenagers and I’m old enough to have children that resemble those in this novel. And I was once a boy myself.
And so I can’t say for sure that the book would work as well aimed at a YA audience as it does on me as an adult. But no question: it does work on me as an adult.