For me, life began when I was twelve. Before then, I lived in imitation of my older brother: what he did, I tried to do—often less successfully. Take a look at our second grade school pictures. Both of us are wearing the same blue and white v-neck t-shirt. I remember deliberately picking that shirt from my drawer of hand-me-downs because I knew it had been the shirt he had worn for his second grade picture two years earlier. When time came to take the picture, I tried my best to smile just like he had. I had been practicing all morning.
Everything changed when I turned twelve and became my own man. I was a deacon, for one, which meant that I no longer had to suffer the humiliation of being a full-time member of Senior Primary. I also became a Boy Scout, which meant that I could finally carry a pocket knife and light off firecrackers in the woods. I had hit the big time. No more riding on an older brother’s coattails for me. I was a MAN—or, at least, on the cusp of manhood—the envy of Blazers and Valients alike!
Being twelve had its downsides too, which I usually learned the hard way. Kids were meaner in sixth and seventh grade than they had been in fourth and fifth grade, and girls suddenly took shape and became harder to talk to. But I survived it all—somehow—a little worse for wear, no doubt, but with a great deal of nostalgia for the dumb stuff I did to get by and fit in. When I started writing stories at fifteen or sixteen, a lot of them were based on my years as a hapless deacon.
Sadly, the deacon years of the male Mormon experience are not often depicted in Mormon fiction. One can always find deacons in the fiction of Douglas Thayer, of course, and recently Brady Udall featured an imaginative deacon-to-be named Rusty in his novel The Lonely Polygamist. But most Mormon fiction, if it’s not depicting adults, seems more interested in older young men: teachers, priests, or missionaries.
This is perhaps why David Clark’s new novel The Death of a Disco Dancer (ZarahemlaBooks, 2011) stands out in my mind. Set in sweltering Arizona in 1981, the novel follows eleven-year-old Todd Whitman as he stumbles—or, more precisely, limps—towards a Kenny Rogers-infused “Pubescent Apocalypse,” his junior high Hello Dance. Along the way, he participates in various rites of boyhood—oranging, fake fighting, gym class hazing—and learns more about his family history from his grandmother, who lives with his family and suffers from Alzheimer’s. In fact, it’s Todd’s relationship with his grandmother that forms the central nervous system of the novel. Without the chapters devoted to their midnight family history/dancing sessions, the book would be a fun novel, but not necessarily a good one.
Which is odd, because my favorite part of The Death of a Disco Dancer is its sophomoricism, its endless string of crotch humor and juvenile sadism. Todd and his friends, after all, are at an age when the usual childhood games have become boring, so new and more exciting games have to be found. They’re also at an age when puberty has made all things below the belt the punch-line of every half-understood joke. Throughout the novel, Todd’s mind never wanders too far from jock straps, bathrooms, and bodily functions.
Aiding and abetting Todd’s humor is his hilarious older brother Gregory, a ninth grader who masterfully feeds Todd’s prepubescent anxieties. For example, to prepare Todd for junior high gym class, Gregory describes the gauntlet each seventh grader must run to exit the showers:
The seventh grader would dart around the corner into a gauntlet—a birth canal-like aisle of orange locked lined with zitty metal-mouthed ninth graders laughing and screaming the F-word, snapping towels at your bare butt as you ran past them. Some of the meaner ones, Gregory said, would make rat tails—soaking wet towels rolled up as tightly as possible—and aim for your wiener as you instinctively cupped yourself and waddled as fast as you can through the chaos. When snapped correctly, a rat tail sounds like the crack of Indiana Jones’s whip. (169)
Much of what Gregory tells Todd about junior high runs along a similar vein, and all of it keeps the reader laughing, even at times when Gregory tries to be helpful. When Todd frets about not knowing how to dance, Gregory dryly reassures him that “[d]ances are a form of institutionalized mating ritual. And all mating rituals are foolproof. If somebody doesn’t tell you what to do, at the last minutes and in the right situation your natural instincts will take over” (171).
But The Death of a Disco Dancer is not just about wiener jokes and gym class anxiety. As Todd witnesses his grandmother’s mental decline, and especially its effect on his mother, he gains insights about life and death that would have gone unobserved or overlooked if he had been any younger. In a sense, the novel is about the very beginnings of Todd’s coming-of-age, the first summer of the rest of his life. And though the book ends before Todd’s twelfth birthday, readers still get a sense that he’s going to survive the precarious transition from child to teenager years. He may still need a few more dancing lesson, but he’s ready for the responsibilities of a deacon.
The Death of a Disco Dancer is David Clark’s first novel, and part of me hopes that he becomes this century’s Douglas Thayer, whose literary influence seems to pervade the book’s prose. Todd Whitman has a strong, distinct narrative voice that captures perfectly the innate obnoxiousness of early adolescence. Also, Clark incorporates Mormon elements so seamlessly into the novel that one wonders why he felt the need to include a straight-laced “Unofficial Glossary of Selected Mormon Terminology” at the end of the book. I’m no gentile, but I can’t imagine anyone unfamiliar with Mormonism getting lost in this book. Not in an age of Wikipedia, at least.
Admittedly, certain aspects of the novel seem weaker than others. While I appreciate Todd’s relationship with his grandmother—and Clark’s handling of it—I feel as if that aspect of the novel lacks closure. Also, certain elements of the grandmother’s history are never fully fleshed out, particularly her relationship with her husband, whom she remembers only as “The Dancer.” Midway through novel, for instance, Clark introduces a mystery, a certain falling out between the grandparents, which is never articulated in detail. As a reader, I’m curious to know more. I want the mystery solved, the ambiguities gone.
Of course, I recognize that ambiguity well done is the stuff of good fiction, even if it does leave things messy. Still, I’m unsure whether the ambiguities at the end The Death of a Disco Dancer frustrate me or leave me more intrigued with the book and its characters. I guess I’ll have to read it again a few years from now, maybe when I start forgetting how strangely exhilarating it was to be a twelve-year-old Mormon kid on the verge of something terrifying and great. That it, after all, the strength of The Death of a Disco Dancer: its heartfelt, realistic tribute to that age when life truly begins.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of The Death of a Disco Dancer from its publisher, Zarahemla Books, which in no way influenced my review of the book.