Dancing Nightly in the Tavern
Ronald Conrad is a professor of English at Ryerson University in
This small book of short stories establishes Mark Anthony Jarman as an exciting new voice in our literature. On the face of it, his collection of aging macho men, kindly floozies, bars and rooming houses, and parking lots and back alleys seems all too familiar. It is the stuff of detective novels, of cowboy fiction, of heroes and anti-heroes populating the bottom edges of society. What one character, a fugitive, derides as “this mythless century” is, in fact, a time and place we know all too well: the American Frontier, with its gods still wearing cowboy boots but now driving decrepit cars or pickup trucks, still drinking hard but now on drugs as well, unemployed, sagging at the middle, now watching hockey games in bars instead of playing them — yet, like the cowboys from whom they are descended, still fighting.
Hank and Luke and Mote and the rest of Jarman’s new cowboys do more than fight, though. As their bodies fade, as the athletic and sexual conquests of their youth yield to the realities of time passing, these men begin to think — about the economy and its effects on them, about the consequences of their own acts, about their own mortality. And their main conclusion is that human contact, no matter how fleeting, is the essence of life. The woman they hold may be too old or too young; she may be a floozie in a back alley who gives them the clap; she may be too good for them and therefore certain to leave. But this moment of closeness is worth all the rest. “My heart beats. I hold her and I hold her.” The present conquers the past.
As rich as these contemplations are, they, too, are familiar — like the ponderings of those thinking tough guys who populate the existential fiction of Sartre and Camus. What is truly original — even startling — in the fiction of Mark Anthony Jarman is his language: it reaches an extreme of compression, of precision, of nuance. Through a highly poetic sensibility it juxtaposes the sordid realities of urban industrial life with flashes of beauty, with glimpses of paradise. For over a hundred pages it sears at white heat. It must be read to be believed.