The Duke Don’t Dance by Richard G. Sharp spans more than fifty years following the lives of a group of friends representing the Silent Generation. The book opens with the funeral of Frank as the group is reunited for the first time in many years. But even though it’s a funeral and it’s been a long time since everyone has seen each other, the air is thick with tension as old wounds, rivalries, and loves (or flings really) come together. Beginning with chapter two, the rest of the book spends time recounting the long, varied, and chaotic history of these people while major historical events play on in the background.
The book doesn’t have one main character as each chapter head hops between at least two characters, sometimes more. While it’s Frank’s funeral which brings everyone together, he is not the main character although much of the early parts of the book features him more. Overall the book follows the lives of Frank, Lillian, Ted, Sam, and to lesser degrees, Inga and Beth. The relationships in the story quickly become convoluted with Frank having been married to Inga before divorcing and marrying Lillian who had had a fling with Ted and Sam who then in turn both had crushes on Ari who later uses Frank as her baby daddy. Throw in some other minor characters who are either married, had had some kind of relationship, or who pokes their nose into the personal lives of other characters, you get a confusing and messy set of “friendships” going on. And I use the term “friendship” loosely because honestly I have no idea when any of these people talk to each other let alone hang out.
The book doesn’t also center on anything I would consider an actual plot which makes it really hard to consider it a novel at all. The reality of it is The Duke Don’t Dance is a series of vignettes with the only connection being we are following a group of friends. Often times this group goes years without seeing or hearing from each other so then the reader gets another vignette to get us caught up with the lives of everyone else. Often times these vignettes felt like an opportunity to use a major historical event or time period to give the reader information rather than developing characters. There is no climax to the story and therefore no real resolution which again makes it difficult for me to consider it a novel.
This lack of a plot and a main character is one of several issues I had with the book as it felt very hard to refer to it as a novel despite involving fictional characters. Overall the biggest problem I had with The Duke Don’t Dance was the writing style. It’s all exposition and telling the reader rather than showing the reader who these people are. There’s also very little dialogue and when there is dialogue, it’s a scant few sentences that does nothing for the story or characters. The detached, head-hopping narrator style doesn’t really work for me as a reader as it was impossible for me to develop any kind of emotional attachment to anyone in the book. Even the historical events are treated in a detached way despite the fact the book spans the ’60s to 9/11. That’s an incredibly tumultuous time in American history with major events which have had long-lasting impact upon American culture even in 2016.
The characters themselves are hard to care about as they all sound the same. I think this is because of the narrative style which doesn’t allow for each character’s voice to come out. As a result, everyone sounds and thinks the same and with an ensemble this large, everyone starts blurring together. For example, up until the very end I had a hard time keeping Sam and Ted straight. It didn’t help that much of the time their stories intertwined and they both were half in love with the same woman from their college days.
I also found it difficult to relate to any of the characters because pretty much everyone is rather unlikeable. Everyone has their guard up and is so emotional stunted and angry for reasons not quite clear in some cases that it becomes incredibly taxing to the reader. Many times I wanted to tell these people to get over themselves and get into some therapy. All the women hate their mothers or are hated by their own daughters. Somehow the male characters with children were at least liked by their kids when we do see father and child together. It’s hard to believe all these people could be this monumentally messed up and I don’t think being part of the Silent Generation is the reason why.
Overall, this book simply didn’t work for me. At times the prose itself is quite lovely but when all of it is exposition and telling the reader then that gets overshadowed. I as a reader had I been shown who these characters are and formed my own opinion, I would have enjoyed a lot more. While I don’t shy away from large ensemble books, I think in the case of The Duke Don’t Dance it would have been better if the book had focused on two or three characters especially given the book is about 232 pages. It’s a lot to cram into such a short space with as many characters there are in the narrative.
On a scale of one to five pencils I give The Duke Don’t Dance two pencils.