REVIEWED BY WENDY BESEL HAHN
As a child of the 80s, I found much to admire in Philip Dean Walker’s At Danceteria and Other Stories. To read the collection was to visit gay nightclubs and watch drag shows inaccessible to me as a straight, suburban Catholic schoolgirl from Ogden, Utah—to rub shoulders with Princess Di and Jackie O who appeared on tabloid magazines in the grocery store. Yet, the linked short stories also resurrected the specter of AIDS.
The first of seven short stories, “By Halston,” recently garnered a 2016 Pushcart Prize nomination. Walker’s choice to begin with the cocaine-fueled evening during which the fashion designer unveils his affordable line for JCPenny sets the tone for a body of work that walks the tightrope between nostalgia and nightmare.
Exquisite still-shots abound throughout the stories: Halston, standing underneath an enormous whale suspended from the ceiling of the American Museum of Natural History, holds a microphone looking over a sea of people; Princess Di, disguised as a gay man, watches a drag queen dressed in a knockoff of her white beaded gown and bolero designed by Catherine Walker; a White House photographer takes a picture of Nancy Reagan in her bright red dress standing between Rock Hudson and President Reagan; Jackie O witnesses a drag queen, dressed as Anne Frank, swallow fire before setting a model house aflame in the basement of The Anvil. The final story and collection’s namesake, “At Danceteria,” concludes the work with an ominous scene in which Madonna wishes Keith Haring a happy birthday while he defaces the columns surrounding her stage with black sharpie pen and red lipstick.
Woven among celebrity appearances are the quieter moments in stories such as “The Boy Who Lived Next to The Boy Next Door” whose anonymous narrator counts himself lucky to be average looking in a world where only the beautiful gay men are dying. Walker’s ability to conjure AIDS as a corporal being throughout this collection intimates Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Black Death.” Inside an abbey with seven rooms, host Prospero and guests hole up trying to escape the deadly plague until it becomes clear the ghostly presence walks among them.
Walker’s narrators sometimes meld together with their snarky attitudes. “Halston doesn’t reply because suddenly Steve reminds him of someone he hates. He reminds him of a faggy JCPenny button specialist….” “In “Sequins at Midnight,” Sylvester is on stage when “He spies Jason and his friends to whom he’s given over the entire third row for the midnight show. They’re waving at him like hysterical queens. One of them is wearing a tight t-shirt with a Cabbage Patch Doll on it.” When Keith Haring walks into his own birthday party, “His vibe was nerdy-cool. New Wave Aspirational. Tonight he was doing Horney Fucked-Up Celebrity Turns Twenty-Six.“
These aloof narrators may explain why the dialogue scenes between Jackie and Jerry in “Jackie and Jerry and The Anvil” top my list of best moments within the debut collection. After visiting The Anvil, Jackie confides in Jerry how she finds his life at gay bars exciting and dangerous, a quality that she only experienced once in her lifetime. Through the interchange, Jerry prompts Jackie to reflect on that earlier incident:
“What was so different about that night? What made you take a chance?” Jackie took off her glasses. Jerry could see her face soften as she fell further into reverie. Years shed from her face and her eyes had seemed, to him at least, to brighten. All the things she had been through, all the tragedy in her life, before her, not behind her.
“I don’t know actually. The moon was so bright that night; it must have inspired me….”
In moments like these, Philip Dean Walker himself takes this Catholic schoolgirl by the hand, brings it to his lips, kisses it, and wishes her goodnight. This intimacy delivers the punch when the masques come off “At Danceteria.”
At Danceteria and Other Stories will be released November 15, 2016. It is currently available for preorder through Amazon or directly from Squares & Rebels.