Author: Dale Ray Phillips
Publication Date: 1996
How I Heard About It: Oxford American article
I read all of My People’s Waltz out loud to myself. Yep, that’s right. All 190 pages. It was, I guess you could say, a long and lonely November, and sometimes I needed a human voice in my apartment other than the talk show hosts of public radio. But there were other reasons.
From the very first sentence—“My grandfather kept his floozy in a silver Airstream above the bend in the river where the dead crossed over”—I knew these were sentences that demanded to be read aloud. Indeed, I will stick my neck out and holler that there is not one sentence in this book, not one, that isn’t a gemstone of a sentence. To prove my point, let me open the book at random, slam my finger on the page, and quote: “A few customers on the end of the route were eating at their picnic tables to escape the kitchen’s heat, and I fought the crazy urge to introduce myself as someone who had decided to join their family.”
Yes. Yes, indeed.
If I never read another book out loud again from cover to cover, I’m okay with that, for this was the book to do so.
I’m sure by now you can tell that I am a hyperbolic man, and I also know that nothing could be more cliché and critically unsound than to say, “This is the best book I have ever read in my life.” But what do you do when you feel this statement to be so true—that this book speaks to you, and almost you alone—and there are no other words that come to you except, “This is the best book I have ever read in my life”?
This is not to say, by the way, that this is the best book you will ever read in your life. And it’s entirely possible that I feel this way in the same way I feel about Shakespeare’s plays. (That is, whenever anyone asks me which Shakespeare play I like best, I reply: “The one I just read.”)
My People’s Waltz is, perhaps for lack of a better term, a novel-in-stories, with a single protagonist-narrator named Richard, and each story chronicles a liminal moment in his life—the death of his grandfather, his loss of virginity, his break-up with his high school girlfriend, his marriage, his divorce, the raising of his son. Indeed, it occurred to me that the genre itself—a novel-in-stories (and particularly this novel-in-stories)—makes the greatest use of Aristotle’s notion about the difference between epic and dramatic time.
But to reduce these stories to bullet-like points is to strip them of their multidimensionality. In the first story, “Why I’m Talking,” the grandfather’s sudden heart attack is only one event in a maelstrom of intoxicating plot points, which include a young boy (Richard) refusing to talk, his mother off in the mental ward, his father out on the road as a half-ass salesman, and his grandfather’s biracial paramour letting the young boy cop a feel. And even the grandfather’s death is not the climax (not even when, in a strangely moving moment, young Richard kisses his dead grandfather’s tongue). The climax, I would argue, occurs at the end, when his mother is frantically asking Richard about what happened, and he speaks for the first time:
I understood that although this periodic leave-taking had already become a part of our lives, we had somehow become a family, caught in the awkwardness of shaping our first reunion together. Some chimeras would have to be constructed to keep this good feeling alive, and so I answered her with this voice, which love had taught to deceive.
You’ll notice that he doesn’t really speak—the dialogue is indirect and summarized—but the voice is the same one that goes on to tell us all of the tragicomic stories that follow. It is a voice with a hypnotic rhythm—most of these sentences are around thirty syllables—and that expresses a childlike wonder, a simplicity that captures beautiful awe.
Let me provide some examples.
Upon seeing the birth of his child: “If there is a lesson to be learned from witnessing birth, then it is that all things are urged ungently into being.”
Upon recognizing the relationship with his high school girlfriend will not last: “I marveled at the newly discovered place in myself which could make love on a widow’s walk to someone I loved but would leave because a greedy part of myself wanted more.”
Or when he takes a break to hustle people in a savings-and-loan scandal in Florida: “The Gulf Coast was like that—full of people whose luck had tricked them into risking anything in order to rediscover what they had lost.”
These aren’t pretentious declarations. They are the straightforward declarations of the heart, and I only quote the smallest fraction of them, though I could go on all day.
But there are writers who write great sentence without the sentences amounting to anything like a story. This book, though, is at its very essence a love story. Certainly not a romanticized love story, but a true one—about love’s anxieties and troubles.
For just as in Shakespeare, marriages are things of trouble. Richard’s parents have a tragic marriage—the mother takes up boyfriends from time to time, the father remains desperately in love—and the tragedy extends through Richard’s own marriage to Lisa. (That’s part of the tragedy, I think—the stories seem to suggest that we can never, no matter how much we want to, escape from our parents.) Dale Ray Phillips captures marital tension in wonderfully subtle dialogue—the kind of dialogue they’re always trying to teach you about in creative writing classes.
The title of the book comes, of course, from the Roethke poem that everyone always debates: Is the father abusive in the poem, or is he lovably drunk? Or both?
The ambiguity is essential to the poem, as it is to this book. Everywhere in this book there are people dancing—usually sad drunks twirling and spinning and somehow both utterly alone and part of community of sad drunks twirling and spinning and trying desperately to make sense of their hard lives. There is such sadness in these stories, but it is a deep sadness that the beauty heightens, confirming Shelley: “Our saddest songs tell our sweetest thoughts.”
Dale Ray Phillips, for all I know, is something like the Harper Lee of his generation. He hasn’t published another book in the fifteen years since My People’s Waltz, and it’s not hard for me to understand. This book must have taken nearly everything he had to write—pain and love and hard work—and it remains to me the essence of the anxiety of influence. After reading the book, that is, my writing seemed much more frivolous and inconsequential thereby.
Fifteen years ago, however, it was not obscure; in fact, the book was nominated for the Pulitzer. But fifteen years is a long time in today’s world, and not many of my friends or colleagues have heard about it.
This book, sadly, needs more than whatever simple, humble resuscitation this blog post can offer. This book needs to be remembered as it is—a classic of Southern literature. Or, even better, the truest love story I have ever read, in silence or aloud.
 I explain this difference to my students like this: Say you’re watching a blockbuster action film like The Fast and the Furious. Epic time is all of the time the main character, played by Vin Diesel, presumably must go through—sleeping, brushing his teeth, going to the bathroom, etc. etc. But how boring would an action film be if the director showed us this? (Andy Warhol once made an 8 hour film of his lover sleeping—blah.) Instead, we see dramatic time—the events that matter to the story—the hijacking and car chases, etc. etc.
 Weird exceptions: the Macbeths, Gertrude and Claudius