The Reading Life: Last exit from Brooklyn

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This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

Here’s a small book worth your attention: James Mason’s ‘Positively No Dancing,’ a collection of six linked short stories, originally published privately and reissued last month by Freebird Books & Goods.

Freebird is an independent bookstore on Columbia Street in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood now called the Columbia Street Waterfront District. But, as Mason -- who has lived in the neighborhood since 1987 -- writes in a brief preface, ‘as far as I’m concerned it’s Red Hook.’

He goes on:

You cross the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that carved a hole in the neighborhood. Once you cross the BQE you’re isolated. Once you cross the BQE you’re in Red Hook. Says me. Once you’re in Red Hook you rarely cross back over. We look out our front windows onto shipping containers and cranes. Those cranes are our trees.


‘Positively No Dancing’ takes place, for the most part, along that narrow stretch of Brooklyn harbor front, in the bars and small apartments, on the job or on the run. The protagonist is a guy named John Flowers, who loses his job at a rehab center for the mentally disabled in the first story and then goes sideways (at times, downhill) from there. John goes to a funeral; he talks to a little girl and her sister on the Brooklyn Promenade about the proximity of the World Trade Center to Heaven.

‘Maybe angels shed feathers from their wings,’ the girl suggests, '... [a]nd then the birds come and fly up and take the feathers and makes nests with it.’ That’s a perfect metaphor for Mason’s book, which gathers the detritus of city life and spins it into something spare and beautiful.

In places, ‘Positively No Dancing’ is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ involving, as it does, a protagonist who is hapless, self-destructive, but not without a certain charm. The language, too, is Johnson-esque: stripped down and largely without affect, as if emotion has been bleached from the very words.

For Mason, though, there is a whisper of if not redemption then at least epiphany of a kind. As he writes in the collection’s final story, a little piece called ‘Luck,’ which revolves, in part, around a horse:

I opened the door and went back outside. There was a plane flying over the house, lower than I’d ever seen. I didn’t even flinch. I thought I might go to the store. I figured I could find carrots somewhere. Hell, the way things were going, I was willing to bet I’d even find hay.


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-- David L. Ulin