A not-so-outlandish premise made completely credible by Roth's unsurpassed talents as a storyteller. As the novel progresses one is filled with as mucA not-so-outlandish premise made completely credible by Roth's unsurpassed talents as a storyteller. As the novel progresses one is filled with as much dread as the protagonists: the amazingly colorful Roth family and their predominately Jewish community, who feel the relentless burgeoning of fascist-style politics, and are fearful of its ramifications for them. If I had any criticism it was that, for me, the book seemed a little long. The message hammered home so effectively need not, perhaps, have been repeated quite so much. But a small quibble for a remarkable — and creepily "real" — scarily-believable scenario brilliantly executed....more
I heard Caryl Phillips, author of ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors some years ago. I was impressed with Phillips,I heard Caryl Phillips, author of ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors some years ago. I was impressed with Phillips, who was born in St. Kitts, West Indies and brought up in Britain. I was interested in what he had to say about his background and very much enjoyed his reading. Also, I’m writing a Caribbean black character as part of the new novel I’m working on — and it’s Black History Month at the moment — so the time was definitely ripe to read Phillips’s work. In ‘Dancing in the Dark’ Phillips fictionalizes the life of Bert Williams (1874-1922), who was the first black entertainer to gain high levels of fame and fortune in the U.S.A. Bert Williams was born in the Bahamas and came to America with his parents when he was a boy. Bert fought his way to the top of the entertainment business to eventually appear on Broadway. He also performed and toured with the popular Ziegfeld Follies. His achievement was a remarkable feat for a black person who was born mere years after the last slave was freed in the U.S.A. and where, during his lifetime, segregation and prejudice were rife. Not surprisingly his story — and more particularly the stories of the black entertainers who surrounded him but who were not as successful — are incredibly hard and sometimes immensely sad. Phillips does a great job of describing the punishing atmosphere in which black performers of the period worked and the crushing disappointments experienced by many of them. He also paints hyper-real pictures of Harlem and New York in general. As a reader we get to “see,” “smell” and “hear” these venues by virtue of Phillips’s vivid descriptions. Despite the inequalities and unfairness of the time articulated by Phillips and strong preconceptions I had about discrimination's injustices, I wasn’t convinced by Phillips that Bert’s life and those of his peers could actually have been quite so relentlessly, unrelievedly depressing as he depicts. Phillips suggests strongly without spelling it out that Bert’s great burden was that he achieved his fame and fortune by donning burnt cork "black face" and becoming what was described as a “coon.” He exaggerated the mannerisms, movements, and speech of a “darkie” to entertain white audiences, which eventually brought scorn and anger from the black community, his own father included. All of which was doubtless true, but it’s hard to believe there weren’t one or two moments of joy, exuberance or triumph along the path of Bert’s rise to fame. Difficult to think there wasn’t any enjoyment at all of his fortune and the comfort it afforded him and his wife. But Phillips never shows us any. When it comes to Bert’s wife (a performer he met on the stage), Phillips supplies no reason for Bert’s absolute and cruelly glacial attitude to her once they were married. It’s suggested that the marriage wasn’t even consummated, but no reason is even hinted at, apart from Bert’s depressed state, which really isn’t convincing enough. Added to all of the above, Phillips's style, although beautifully rendered and articulate to a point, has a consistently doleful tenor with no relief whatsoever. I really wanted to like this book, and I didn’t not like it, but I found it relentlessly glum without being convinced by Phillips that it needed to be. In fact I wondered if the tragedies of the novel wouldn't have seemed more intense if there had been some joy as a contrast to the unceasing misery. I was left thinking that surely just occasionally even the most challenged dancer comes into the light, even for a brief moment.
P.S. After the kerfuffle over “nigger” being removed from an updated 'Huckleberry Finn' edition, it’s interesting that Phillips uses the “n” word quite liberally in this book, as it would have been used during the period in which the book is set. ...more