The first fiction workshop I took at the University of South Carolina was with the visiting writer Ron Rash. Now, this was before Ron Rash was Ron Rash. He was already widely published and wildly respected, of course. He had written three books of poetry—Eureka Mill (1998), Among the Believers (2000), and Raising the Dead (2002)—two books of short fiction—The Night New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina (1994) and Casualties (2000)—and he had recently won the Novello Literary Award for his first novel, One Foot in Eden (2002). This was the semester, though, when his debut novel earned him a book contract with Henry Holt and Company.
It was a special workshop because all twelve students in the class felt like we were part of Rash’s success. Here was this soft-spoken, kind teacher who read our stories with great interest, listened intently to our fumbling opinions about short fiction, and treated us like his writing equal, and all the while he was about to republish his first novel with a major publisher and finish writing his second novel, Saints at the River (2004). We all felt like if this could happen to our teacher, then it could—with hard work and dedication—happen to us.
We caught fire as writers that semester.
I, in particular, burned bright because Rash was the first writer I’d met from my home state of North Carolina. I said as much one afternoon while following him across campus to the faculty parking deck (my earnestness may have bordered on menacing in the early days of my writing life). Rash nodded like he understood what our shared statehood might mean to me and then reached into his car and pulled out his copy of My People’s Waltz, a collection of short stories by his good friend Dale Ray Phillips.
Phillips grew up in Haw River, North Carolina and, like me, had attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the mid-nineties, not long after completing his MFA at the University of Arkansas, he started working as an instructor at Clemson University where he met Rash and George Singleton. Years later, I would interview Rash for the Southeast Review about their friendship. Rash said he’d never taken a creative writing class in college or graduate school and that his time with Phillips and Singleton was like a writing group, one where they would encourage each other to keep writing and do the best they could:
George was living about twenty miles away, but he would come over a lot. Dale, George, and I on Friday afternoons would go out together and talk literature… just being around each other made us all want to write more and better… They’re just great friendships. I think that’s the best thing. It was just kind of a nice dynamic. We all write differently. We would talk about what we were reading, more than what we were writing. We’d teach each other. Dale would mention maybe a short story I hadn’t read. George might the next time. I might mention something to them. It was a good time.1
That afternoon in the parking deck Rash said if reading writers from North Carolina made me want to work harder then I ought to read one of our state’s best.
My People’s Waltz, published in 1999, is Dale Ray Phillips’s first and only book. The collection, a novel-in-stories, opens with an eight-year old boy, Richard, who stops speaking the summer his mother is institutionalized for a nervous breakdown. The remaining nine stories, narrated by Richard and spanning thirty-plus years, follow the events of his youth in North Carolina. The strained relationship between his traveling salesman father and his fragile mother shape the book—as do the birth of Richard’s son in Arkansas, his stint as a conman in Texas, and the withering of his marriage in a variety of Southern states. The collection culminates with its title story, “My People’s Waltz.” Richard visits his mother’s home in Chapel Hill. Now a middle-aged man with his son and estranged wife in tow, he comes to understand that “[he hails] from a stock of people who dance in their kitchens” and he does his “best cakewalk toward [his] loved ones in that room where [their] voices echoed, and then were gone.”
I’ve heard rumors from other writers—whenever I meet a writer who may have crossed paths with Dale Ray Phillips, I ask—that he owes a novel to his publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, based on the same characters featured in his story collection. Rash says he isn’t sure why his friend hasn’t published. Singleton, who taught my last fiction workshop at USC, mentioned offhand in class one afternoon when talking about writing five-hundred word sentences as a way to free yourself up to write that he had a friend, Dale Ray, who was paralyzed by perfectionism. He said he would write a sentence like, “The woman lay on the couch.” Then, he would quit writing until he was certain it was “lay” not “lie” instead of writing “reclined” and moving on. Singleton was quick to point out that his method, while difficult and slow, had resulted in his stories being published in the Atlantic, Harper’s, and GQ as well as being anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South.
I tend to believe Singleton is right about the perfectionism. A sampling of the collection’s opening sentences demonstrates the writer’s ambition as well as the care and attention paid to the language:
My grandfather kept his floozy in a silver Airstream above the bend in
the river where the dead crossed over.
All our domesticity has a perimeter of wildness, and when I was fourteen, mine was the woods which began where our neighborhood ended.
How do you begin to judge your father?
When I was thirty-five and freshly separated and still a stouthearted pilgrim to myself, I took a job on the Gulf Coast swindling people.
I first heard about the types of love in junior high school, when purse-lipped teachers herded the girls into the library and corralled the boys in the gymnasium so that experts could explain sex.
The stories themselves are no less highly-stylized, vibrant, and intense than his opening sentences. Yet there’s vulnerability in the storytelling that’s more endearing than the flash of language.
In the story, “Why I’m Talking,” the eight-year old Richard moves into his grandfather’s home along the Haw River while his mother recuperates from a nervous breakdown at an oceanside hospital. The river house isn’t the grandfather’s “real” residence—he’s a retired circuit judge who lives across from the courthouse in “a columned stone residence listed in the historical register”—but his hideaway, “a place not listed on any of the municipal maps” where he keeps his black mistress, Miss Minnie, and their interracial child, Sudie. Richard’s father convinces the grandfather that the boy can be trusted with the family secret because he’s recently quit talking. His muteness alarms Miss Minnie who “[administers] spells and potions to cure [him]” such as “necklaces of garlic, an impromptu exorcism in which [he] stared at a crucifix so long [he] feared [his] eyes had permanently crossed, several smelly poultices strapped snugly to [his] chest like life jackets, and baptism in everything from mail-order holy water to motor oil.”
Richard, though, has his own secret: his muteness is voluntary. He decided to quit speaking the day his “mother wore her bridal gown and talked nonstop to her reflection in the mirror” and while running the oven gas “instructed [him] to sit on her lap as she made hand shadows, the shapes in turn as fierce and friendly and unnamable as her craziness.” Richard believes his reasons for not talking “sound enough: whatever had abducted my mother might steal me if I let out too many words.” To prevent his silence from hindering his mother’s recovery, he writes her postcards and it’s in this way that “deception and protection would be forever linked for [him].”
The extent of that deception backfires when his mother escapes from the hospital and unearths her son’s whereabouts. Through a series of events too complicated to explain here, but prompted by the boy’s unwillingness to speak on the telephone, the grandfather becomes so agitated that his daughter is on the verge of discovering his secret second family that he succumbs to a heart attack in front of his grandson. The moments after the death are some of the most beautiful and horrific I’ve ever read:
As the last convulsions struck, he bit off a portion of his tongue. His eyes became as wide as things held under a magnifying glass, and I searched for my image in them as they clouded. Then I shut my grandfather’s eyes, because I didn’t want to see what they saw.
What do you do with your forefather’s tongue? I put that tip of tongue to my lips, stood in front of the living-room mirror, and made it waggle. When pulled away, it left a little moustache of blood. Here was a thing that had lived and loved and pronounced judgments—and it was mine. Then I weighted it with rocks fetched from my river-bottoming and bound the whole affair with cheesecloth meant to wrap fish heads and seasonings for catfish stew. I hurried it to the Haw and heaved in this strange offering, because I feared becoming fluent in the language it now spoke.
Phillips has the rare ability to place beautiful and haunting images in the most desperate and ugly of situations. The story, “The Woods at the Back of Our Houses,” ends after a party Richard’s father throws to celebrate the 1969 moon landing. Three boys—Richard, “an orphaned boy named William who had three testicles,” and “a stutterer [they] called Ba Ba Bobby”—gather around a drunken reveler in the woods named Mrs. Hans. All summer long, the boys have been climbing trees to watch her “waltz naked around her living room and stop to examine her beauty in the mantel mirror.” They take advantage of her drunkenness and “grope her and fondle her breasts” until she surprises them by saying, “We will now screw like dogs.” The boys take turns “grappling with love and other newfound feelings under a fat moon where men were walking. It’s strange, the way you learn to wear the weight of such moments.”
Phillips sets “At the Edge of the New World” in a neighborhood where “wife beating and noisy front-yard battles [are] part of [the characters’] world.” A man named Lamar strikes his wife so hard she loses an incisor. Afterwards, still in a rage, he finds his dog, Lucky, who “had a perpetual spot of mange on its flanks” and dunks him repeatedly in a barrel of old motor oil which “was thought to be a home remedy for the disease.” Upon release, the howling dog “as if in need of regaining its master’s good graces… [brings] a stick to Lamar, and they [play] fetch at first light, while down by the Haw River you [can] hear the mill generator’s high-pitched whine as it [struggles] to convert water into a substance as ethereal as electricity.” A teenaged Richard watching from his bedroom window convinces himself that “their sorrow would never be my own. Like most people, I actually believed I could escape where I came from.”
Sorrow catches up to Richard in the story, “When Love Gets Worn.” Back with his wife after “a bit of sordid business on the Gulf Coast” selling “fake trailer lot deeds to investors with souls more crooked than [his] own” in the story “What It Costs Travelers,” Richard finds himself living a “tattered lifestyle… in Texas.” His wife, Lisa, “has been petitioning him for an uncontested divorce” while he “[fattens his] adjunct lecturer’s wages by painting over the heel marks left by previous tenants” in the apartment complex she manages. Heartbroken and desperate, he finds himself spending evenings before class, “though [he has] sworn not to” in La Club Mexicana for “fortification before teaching.” In the type of place “a sensible person would avoid,” he buys a ten-dollar dance with a prostitute, “We slow dance, and she eases me into a darkened corner. When she massages my stiffness, I bury my face in her cleavage… I suckle greedily at the difference between this breast and Lisa’s… Of all the times that I have drunk here, I never thought I would become one of these men in this room.” In the shortest of waltzes, Richard transforms into the kind of man he loathes.
Not all of the stories’ images are devoid of hope and good feeling, though. In fact, Phillips’s writing is often at its finest when it transcends the sorrow and reaches for a moment of grace. This happens most often when characters are on the verge of trouble or the unknown and find themselves in need of trusting one another. In the story, “Corporal Love,” Richard dances around this feeling of risk by recounting all of his past relationships starting with his “first love [who] knocked out [his] front incisor so [he] could buy her a charm bracelet with the tooth fairy money” and ending with the woman he “would marry, Lisa, after she waltzed into [his] life.”
In one of the funnier moments of the collection, he claims he learned everything he needed to know about love and women from a local army recruiter hired to “[terrorize] adolescent audiences with the consequences of Onan’s sin (hairy palms and a deterioration of the thought process) and premarital sex (venereal diseases and Eternal Damnation).” Richard admits, “The diseases didn’t scare anyone; penicillin could cure anything, and besides, it took twenty or so years for the spirochetes to crawl up the urinary tract and infect the brain or spinal column… At age thirteen, a bed in a room where you were crazy seemed a fair price to pay for twenty years of unmitigated fornication.”
“Everything Quiet Like Church” finds Richard waiting outside his Arkansas cabin, unsure of what to do with himself, and having to trust a midwife and her blind sister to deliver his son. He recounts how in the months leading up to the delivery he’d confide to complete strangers that he was about to become a father, “Once [at a pizza place], a man thought I’d said that I had just become a father, and rounds were stood for all. That day, there seemed no better smell on earth than spicy sauces simmering and the odor of baking bread.” The story, “What We Are Up Against,” opens with, “My Father died obsessed with being remembered. His tombstone was a granite reproduction of Winged Victory engraved with Think of me as you pass by / As I am, soon will you lie.” Richard offers a eulogy of sorts for his father by recounting the last camping trip they took together with his son, Fisher.
It’s a boozy weekend spent camping on a lake with two floozies the father picked up in an airport bar that somehow finds its ending with the men acting irresponsibly. The father sits drunk at the helm of a rented motorboat with his grandson acting as skipper as they pull an even drunker Richard naked on water-skis across Crater Lake. Before turning in for the night, settling into the tent in “the warm spot between [two] sleeping generations, Richard finds himself wondering how his own son will remember him, “I felt humbled by that ache which even pharaohs knelt down before when they saw the capstone set into place, and they yielded to how we would remember them.” It’s in these moments—moments of uncertainty and misunderstanding—where we watch with great sorrow as the story’s characters fall again and again into bad decisions with the most elegant of intentions.
For me, the best moment in the story collection—the most full of grace—is the moment when all of the bad things to come are brewing on the horizon but haven’t yet managed to fully snag the family. Twelve-year old Richard in “What Men Love For” finds himself caring for his mother on the verge of another mental collapse while his dad is away selling medical equipment throughout North Carolina and Virginia. His father hopes for a promotion that will keep him “home two days a week, plus weekends.” The promotion inevitably falls through, pushing the mother over the edge, and his parents’ marriage into uncertainty. Father and son take a head-clearing motorcycle ride up into the mountains. After they have “gone as far it [is] possible to go and still turn back,” Richard clings to his father on the back of the motorcycle and puts all of his trust into him that he’ll somehow pull everybody out of this mess:
I thought of how the road leading down from the mountainside was steep and dangerous. Around one bend or another would lie a blind curve whose far side held secret what might or might not be. As we approached that curve there would arise in us a steady drumming. Our chests would swell and throb until our pulse beat in the quicks of our fingertips. We were blood-full of the moment wherein, against all probabilities, you lean into the curve and take your chances of making it. You feel earthbound, not by the motorcycle but by your urge to round that bend. Oil slick or happy ending, complete with a hero’s welcome, you ease into that snake of road whose other side holds your future hidden. This moment is what men love for. You are father and son, caught in homeward motion.
“Hold on,” my father said, and we went at that curve with all the speed and hope that we could muster.
The chances of making it—oil slick or happy ending—are what I put all my speed and hope in as I continue to work hard and do the best I can as a writer. It’s the same kind of hopefulness that keeps me patient for Dale Ray Phillips’s second book.
“Twisting the Radio Dial: An Interview with Ron Rash,” The Southeast Review, 25.2 (2007):
Further Links & Resources:
- Read Dale Ray Phillips’s story, “Haw River Cosmology,” published in Zoetrope in the Summer 2000 Issue.
- Read Gary Krist’s 1999 review of My People’s Waltz, “Purgatory, USA,” published in the New York Times. The review also includes a link to the first story in the collection, “Why I’m Talking,” which begins with the enviably-wonderful line “My grandfather kept his floozy in a silver Airstream above the bend in the river where the dead crossed over.”
- The Carolina Quarterly published an interview with Phillips in 2003 called, “Old Times on the Haw.” Read an excerpt here.
- The Oxford American Best of the South 2010 features Phillips’s most recent publication, “Hillbilly Fishing.”
- In a “5 Q’s” Interview on The Write Network, George Singleton calls My People’s Waltz “perfect.”
- Visit the New Madrid Journal (based out of Murray State University’s low-res MFA) where Dale Ray Phillips is Fiction Editor.