The Death of a Disco Dancer (there’s a double meaning in that)


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.)

Click to listen.

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.

Highly recommended.

15 thoughts on “The Death of a Disco Dancer (there’s a double meaning in that)”

  1. Ah, disco.

    I left on my mission to Thailand at the tippy-top apex of the Disco craze. The Thais were even more gaga for disco: it was fun (Thai’s LOVE fun) and its simple repetitive lyrics were easy enough for the Thais to repeat.

    My whole mission was spent tramping Bangkok’s rain-slicked streets, accompanied by a Disco soundtrack of outdoor speakers blaring “Funkytown” with young Thais belting out lyrics snippets in real time when they saw us coming so as to impress us with their command of English.

    Then I came home. To my utter amazement, outside of Thailand Disco was not only dead — it was two years stone cold dead. Not just dead, murdered, slain with a stake through its heart. Bulldozed over in stadiums and set on fire dead.

    Friends and acquaintances and college roommates, who’d been the biggest and most vocal disco boosters, who’d played it non-stop 24/7, who’d been the disco trend setters, etc. etc . etc. now solemnly and mightily swore up and down that of course THEY had never like disco, that THEY had been the lonely voice in the wilderness decrying its hideousness.

    Instead, now they were the biggest and most vocal New Wave music boosters, played New Wave non-stop 24/7, etc. etc. etc.

    An rather invaluable lesson in fads and herd mentality.

  2. I may also have something to say about this novel, but, for now, I’ll just endorse what Th. has wrote. That was pretty much my experience as well (except I read it over a longer string of days).

  3. I really want to read this book now; it sounds great. On a bit of a tangent, but do we have very many LDS books about girls growing up? Off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few about boys (anything by Doug Thayer, No Going Back, Falling Toward Heaven, On the Road to Heaven, etc) We need more books about girls!

    Oh, and am I allowed to say I hate the cover of this book? I think it’s ugly and it doesn’t seem to convey what the book seems to be about (from what I’ve gleaned in various reviews). Maybe if I read the book I will like the cover more, but right now it turns me off.

  4. “…well it happens a lot round here. And, if you think peace is a common goal then it goes to show how little you know”. I wonder if the story goes with the song somewhat?

  5. .

    Off the top of my head, Foxy, we sorta have Bound on Earth, we have our YA writers, and we sorta have some Lost Generation short stories. Where are the rest? I don’t know.

    I can’t decide how I feel about the cover. It doesn’t seem to have that much to do with the book, but it is certainly striking. But will that strikingness lead to more sales? I don’t know.

  6. FoxyJ,

    Good question. Answer: I don’t know. New York Regional Singles Dance?

    Unfortunately, a pervasive problem in Mormon letters is that few people know the domain thoroughly. Is this a question Katya could answer?

    Searching on “female” in the Mormon lit database came up with 20 matches, which is definitely far too few (and many not literature in the common meaning of the word). If we ever get a really good, powerful database going, this is the kind of question that ideally it could help answer…

  7. On a bit of a tangent, but do we have very many LDS books about girls growing up?

    Interesting question. The only works I currently have under “Young Women” (or a variant thereof) are a short story, a Divine Comedy sketch, and the documentary Sisterz in Zion. Of those, I’d say the latter actually does a pretty good job of addressing some of the issues faced by LDS girls.

    There’s bound to be some books published by Deseret Book or Covenant that have young female Mormon protagonists (Jack Weyland, obviously, and I think Ally Condie wrote some Mormon fiction before she moved to a national audience), but I’ll admit that I’m not hugely familiar with DB and Covenant’s backlists.

    Based on your examples, though, it sounds like you’ve got lit fic more in mind than YA, anyway. I imagine you could count Zoe Murdock’s Torn by God, but that book deals heavily with her father’s involvement in polygamy, which puts some distance between it and the experiences of the prototypical LDS girl. (Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One is even farther away, in this regard, since it’s actually set inside a fundamentalist Mormon compound.)

  8. >7.

    As I recall, The New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance dealt more with Baker’s life as a college student and older and not so much with her growing up years (or at least, that’s not where her character arc was situated).

  9. There’s Marilyn Brown’s House on the Sound, although as I recall there was little to none Mormon content in the novel.

  10. Actually, none isn’t correct. There is some Mormon content, but it’s not the main focus for the girl.

  11. Loved the book. Hated the cover. I admit that it conjures the uncomfortable juxtaposition that the subject matter deals with – dementia & adolescence. yet the book was too prosaic and tender to be adequately represented by either the skull (don’t wanna picture Granny THAT dead) or the ocular disco balls (a caricature of an era we pretend we didn’t like that much – unless Gloria Gaynor or YMCA comes on) The genuineness of the story requests more fitting artwork.

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