Review: Dancers on the Shore by William Melvin Kelley (1964; republished 2020)


A collection of seventeen stories, from the author – and the world – of A Different Drummer.

‘There is no need of prophesying that Mr. Kelley will one day be among the best American short story writers. Dancers on the Shore proves that he already is’
New York Herald Tribune

In 1964, two years after the critically lauded release of his debut novel A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley published his first collection of short stories, Dancers on the Shore. Reissued in a new edition by riverrun, these seventeen stories expand Kelley’s literary world, revisiting many of the locations and characters his readers first met in his explosive debut. These powerful stories showcase his bold imagination and spotlight his inimitable talent, further cementing his reputation as a lost giant of American literature – now rediscovered at last.


I was delighted to receive an advance copy of Dancers on the Shore from Ana Sampson at Quercus/riverrun Books in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ana and the publisher for my copy. I have been keen to read more short story collections this year, having realised that my reading is very novel-heavy. This re-issue of a 1964 collection is both timely and brilliant, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to discover William Melvin Kelley. As soon as I finished this collection, I ordered his novel, A Different Drummer, which is also published by riverrun, and which I am very much looking forward to.

Onto the stories: the first thing to say is that they blew me away. In a really good short story collection, there might be two or three stories that give me what I call the ‘pang’ – a feeling in my chest towards the end of the story which is like a sucker-punch of truth. It is not about an unexpected twist, necessarily, but a line of dialogue or a gesture that has such authenticity to it that it seems to come from real life and not fiction, that sums up the heartache of the story, that reaches into the core of humanity. I don’t know if I am the only one that gets this feeling, and if this therefore sounds like Ellie-nonsense, but it’s a physical sensation, and as I say, it is rare. Almost every story in this book gave me the short story ‘pang of truth’.

It is easy to say that Kelley’s collection is particularly relevant now, in the light of the BLM movement, but as he states in his preface, “An American writer who happens to have brown skin faces this unique problem: […] his readers begin to search fervently, and often with honest concern, for some key or answer to what is happening today between black and white people in America.” He goes on to say a writer “should depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.” Kelley is a keen-eyed observer of the dynamics of race in America, and of course these issues are prevalent in his stories, but he is first and foremost a chronicler of human nature, able to build deeply convincing characters, and to use the short story form to create whole worlds in a few pages.

The opening story, ‘The Only Man on Liberty Street,’ is told from the third person view of a child, Jennie. Her father defies convention and comes to live with his mistress, Jennie’s mother. In ‘Enemy Territory,’ the story which follows, Jennie appears again, much older. The interlinking nature of these stories, in which characters recur at different stages in their lives, and with greater or lesser roles depending on the story, adds to the realism of the story world. The way in which Kelley dips in and out of generations gives a swooping, sweeping feeling of continuity which is comforting and unsettling in equal measures, for while there are changes, they are not always enough, and there are repeated patterns that circle back. As the reader becomes more familiar with characters such as Chig and Peter and Connie and Mance, watching them face all kinds of challenges, sometimes growing as people, sometimes coming up short, the complexity of Kelley’s skill as a writer is gradually revealed. This collection builds to something almost greater than a novel, and it has left me excited to see how A Different Drummer compares.

‘Not Exactly Lena Horne’ is one of my favourite stories in the collection: Wilfred and Stanton are friends who have decided to live together in their old age, and their relationship is poignantly and perfectly depicted in the way they are so familiar with each other’s irritating habits. As Stanton grows more and more frustrated with Wilfred’s hobby of spotting car license plates, a very real sense of tension is created between the two men, despite the humour of the situation. (A small gesture at the end of this story caused a particularly big pang, by the way). Other standouts for me were: ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?’, ‘Connie’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Legs in the World.’

Kelley is an outstanding writer, and I am so grateful to have been introduced to his work. I highly recommend this collection – for me, Kelley is right up there with the very best American short story writers I have read, and I can’t wait to read more of his books. (Just as I finished typing this, my copy A Different Drummer was delivered, so I won’t have to wait long!)

About the Author

Born in New York in 1937, William Melvin Kelley was an African-American writer known for his satirical explorations of race relations in America. He was just twenty-four years old when his debut novel, A Different Drummer, was first published in 1962, earning him critical comparisons to William Faulkner and James Baldwin. Dancers on the Shore, published in 1964, is his first collection of short stories. Considered part of the Black Arts Movement, Kelley was in 2014 officially credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with coining the political term ‘woke,’ in a 1962 New York Times article entitled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’. He died in February 2017, aged 79.

Dancers on the Shore will be published in paperback and ebook by riverrun on 6th August 2020. It is available to preorder here.


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