“Dance in America” appears in Lorrie Moore’s collection Birds of America; you can hear it read in a New Yorker podcast by Louise Erdrich, who discusses it afterwards with Deborah Treisman. After loading the podcast onto my iPod, I found myself listening to it again and again, discovering more every time. And then, because listening to literature is okay for commuting but not for serious absorbing, I broke out my worn copy of the book and re-read it in print, too. On page two of the story, there is this:
They ask me why everything I make seems so “feministic.”
“I think the word is feministical,” I say. I’ve grown tired. I burned my life down for a few good pieces, and now this.
This interaction, recounted by the narrator, hints at both the humor and gravity we’re in for in the pages to come. The narrator is visiting Pennsylvania Dutch Country as a “dancer in the schools.” While in the area, she takes the opportunity to catch up with an old, dear friend, Cal, his wife Simone, and their seven year old son, Eugene, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. The family lives in a former frat house that world-weariness has prevented them from fixing up; the ceiling features the graffiti “wank me with a spoon,” trees grow through the floor boards and, in order to make dinner, they need to empty rainwater from their cooking pots, all of which have migrated into the attic to catch leaks.
The story is contained, essentially, within a few hours. The dancer and Cal walk the dog. She watches a video with Eugene. They eat dinner. And then, they dance to a Kenny Loggins song.
Somehow, woven through this minimal amount of action, there is hilarity, hope and abject heartbreak. The dancer, we learn, was left by a long-term boyfriend who found her selfish (an example of how she’s burned down her life); before leaving, he suggested she rent her place, “perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like [her]self.” Dancing is what she has, all she has. In an early conversation with Cal, though, he says, “It’s not that I’m not for the arts…It’s wonderful to fund the arts…The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.” And how can the dancer blame him, in love as she is with Eugene, who is precocious but not too precious and whose whole life is, as she says, “a race with medical research.”
As with all great short stories, there’s no point trying to convey the power of the ending of “Dance in America”–you’ve got to read the whole story to feel it the way it needs to be felt. I will say that there is a tiny, wrenching forward jump near the end, which highlights in one unsentimental line both the dancer’s failings and the terrible finality of Eugene’s time. And that Kenny Loggins song they all dance to at the end of the story? Of course, it’s “This Is It.”