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A Review of: Transient Dancing
by Nancy Wigston

Actor, singer, novelist, Gale Zo Garnett's stories are infused with flair and drama. Not for her the moody study of depression in the North. Her first novel, Visible Amazement, unfolded the coming-of-age of young Roanne Chappell, a talented cartoonist, whose bohemian mother had moved from London to British Columbia to pursue her art. Bolting after her sexuality clashed with her mother's, Roanne began a journey that took her to California, where she discovered kind men and damaged girls. Such was Garnett's sparkling talent for writing character and scene that we hardly noticed the improbability of a girl discovering the paradise of orgasms at a young age with her handsome older lover, or questioned the coincidences that wove Garnett's narrative together.
And now comes Transient Dancing. Working on an even larger canvas, Garnett paints a history of the modern American civil rights struggle, the arrival of the age of AIDS, while offering for our consideration another younger-older lover duo. Her travels range much further this time: from Washington and Hollywood, to Sweden, a Greek island, and finally, London. It all begins in Greece, with the chance encounter of two black Americans. Of the two, the thirtyish former actor John G. Reed, is the more rooted and rounded character. Having fled the States, or at the least having firmly decided not to return, Johnny has found a home on the island of Ydra, where he has a job, a wife and a daughter. Working as a waiter, singing at night, he puts on a show for extra tips, much to the chagrin and annoyance of the newcomer, lifetime civil rights activist Theodore ("Theddo") Daniels, who resents what he sees as Johnny's "Stepin Fetchit" routine. Physically large, Daniels also looms large throughout the narrative. James Earl Jones could play Daniels in the movie version; he's that kind of presence.
Johnny and Daniels meet, they argue, then fight, then reconcile, in a long scene that reads like a screenwriter's meet-cute'. The younger man brings the older one home, to meet his wife, Soula, who tells him to shower because he smells like "donkeyshit" and then sits him down to brandy and pastries. All of Daniels's books are on Johnny's bookshelves. Following movie logic, the men become fast friends, although there will come a moment when Soula gets nervous about having Daniels cooking in her kitchen when she realizes he has AIDS. This unlikely beginning, the meeting of two black men, scarred in their various ways by their life experiences, reads like a happy ending. Garnett then delves deeply into the meat of her story: the past.
"The past isn't over," William Faulkner once wrote, "it isn't even past." Certainly this is true for Reed and for Daniels, whose stories share roots in American racism. Reed's story begins in North Carolina. His acting talent takes him to the Manhattan Actor's Playhouse on full scholarship in 1971, where he intends to become "the next Sidney Poitier." As Garnett unpeels the layers of the actor's world, she reveals a place where youthful optimism and loyal friendships inexplicably can turn sour at career-building time. Being black makes it harder for John to succeed, as he tries to eschew parts that fill him with "an unacceptable sense of shame." Garnett writes scenes showing how the electric current of talent can create fireworks on stage, whereas film-film can be whittled down until a brilliant piece of acting virtually disappears. Being black, but also male, John encounters problems in the phony Hollywood scene, when his girl friend and occasional lover becomes involved with a sleazy, uber-powerful Hollywood agent.
Loyalty, friendship, talent, dignity-these are John's virtues. That they are not valued in the movie biz hardly comes as news, but Garnett moves with such assurance in the world of actors and agents that his story seems both true and individual. Johnny has relocated to a small perfect island far from where he was born. Theddo Daniels has a story to tell too, and has come to Hydra to write his biography. Whereas John Reed paid with his career for being what he was-an honest black male-Daniels has been acting a role in public life that he has never acknowledged. As the leader of InterAfrA, a lobby group with considerable clout in Washington, Daniels has hidden his homosexuality from all but a few close friends.
He knows the "brothers" don't like gays, and his commitment to his cause has been his excuse for hiding his true nature from the public, going so far as to use a woman friend, a closeted lesbian senator, to mask his preference. Although Daniels remains a rather wooden figure, Garnett calls on her magical creative powers when she brings to life his lover, the "transient dancer" of the title. Swedish (and therefore very white), young, with a rent boy past, Bjorn (rhymes with yearn) Nilsson could hardly be a more disastrous match for middle-aged, respectable Daniels, in Stockholm to attend a World in Colour conference. Yet, like Roanne Chappell, young Mr. Nilsson possesses a major talent: he can dance. This talent-and the brutality he has endured, shown in a brief but shocking club scene-provoke the older American's interest and sympathy.
Few writers handle the tricky subject of gay liaisons with as much grace as Garnett does here. She shows us a younger man, talented and charming, who is also petulant, unfaithful, and who poses a real danger to the good works' done by his elder lover. As a secret kept among a trusted few in high places, Bjorn, dancing his "Monster Dance" of creativity and sickness, provides Theddo's story with its touching and comic highlights. These closeted chapters in Theddo's life, well and truly told, guarantee that his memoir becomes a bestseller.
Garnett, while telling Theddo's story, demonstrates her sure expertise at evoking foreign places. A club, a hotel, a remote island in Sweden-she paints these scenes with fresh and memorable strokes. Washington and environs emerge just as vividly, after the young dancer shows up seeking love and refuge. Oddly, it's Greece, with its heavy chapter titles and tedious phonetic spellings and translations, that emerges as Garnett's least endearing bit of geography.
Performing her story-telling dance, Garnett balances her happy outcome with a final, horrific memory. Surprisingly, this one belongs to Johnny's wife, Soula. Her fears for her daughter, sailing off to London with a scholarship, in the care of the revered Theddo Daniels, are encapsulated in a scene from her own stay as a foreigner in London, years ago. A brutally vivid experience in the Underground bubbles up into the present, blotting out the sunny day in Greece as she watches her child embarking on her adult journey. Johnny consoles her: "What happened to you doesn't happen to everybody. He said this knowing well that something happens to everybody." And so Garnett brings the dance of her characters' lives to its end, pausing on the threshold of a new beginning.

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