Author: Diana Atkinson
Toronto, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Highways and dancehalls
A good song takes you far
You write about the moon
And you dream about the stars
--Danny O'Keefe, "The Road."
The double oil show was last night. We used Sherry's dropcloth-- three millimetre plastic from Handyman Hardware-- and baby oil. I felt ridiculous and so did she, I think. We knew we were supposed to get majorly skin-to-skin, squeeze each other's parts, kiss with our tongues flying. We hadn't touched all week and here we were, eyeing each other up in that dead moment before the music starts. The men were all milling around below like so many pilgrims at a flogging. (93)
A guy comes up to me in the bar. Asks, "Do you think you have a warped view of humanity?" As I walk the corridor back to the room I think, how do I know? How the fuck does anyone know?
Diana Atkinson demonstrated significant literary talent before she became a teenage stripper, and she continued to write creatively while working on society's fringe. In this Atkinson recalls fellow Vancouverite Evelyn Lau, who was a published poet at 14, a promising writer before she became Canada's most famous former prostitute. Atkinson never went so far into the fringe as Lau, and she generally avoided the illegal drugs that often go with the sex trade lifestyle. She took everything in as she toured, and wrote Highways and Dancehalls "forty-five minutes a day in a laundrymat." The novel, fragmented and inconclusive, has undeniable power; Atkinson writes of sordid doings with a poet's eye for detail.
The semi-autobiographical tale tells of Sarah, who at 17, applies at an agency, located "between a joke shop and store that sold salami"(19) and becomes an exotic dancer. She starts calling herself "Tabitha" and takes to the strip club circuit of British Columbia and Alberta.
Sarah, like the author, had regular surgery as a child for ulcerative colitis. She connects her medical experiences, body constantly under observation by medical professionals, "probed by more men" than she could count by age 7 (69), with her career as a stripper. In dancing, she has an illusion of the control over her body which was denied by medical science. She exposes herself onstage by choice, and (since lap-dancing was not yet mainstream) they cannot touch her. Medical references abound in her descriptions of nude dancing. She feels like "something in a Petri dish" on a "small, round pill of a stage;" a scar on her body is "hepatitis yellow"(1).
Perhaps the most surreal scene involves a private party, where her performance is a Christmas gift to a middle-aged man. She strips and dances on deep pile shag, "which is like those dreams where you try to run but can't move" (132), before assembled family members ranging from teenage daughter to "thick-ankled" matron. "If this is Grandma," she writes, "I don't want to know"(133).
Atkinson describes evocatively the small towns glimpsed in darkness and the complexed personalities of Sarah/Tabitha's fellows. We see exotic dancers ironing their kids' clothing in the changeroom. We feel the conflict as Sarah/Tabitha talks with a girl whose breasts have been surgically enhanced, and our narrator separates herself in her mind. "One of me is sympathizing and hoping it works," she thinks, while "the other is photographing her for my jerk-off picture file"(181).
We see less of the men. Their personalities are never really developed, and they are often reduced to images glimpsed in "Pervert's Row"-- or, as Sarah/Tabitha calls it, "Gynecology Row." It would be wrong to say that she hates men, but she seldom treats them with anything like sympathy. Lloyd, her boyfriend for much of the novel, never seems more than a small-minded brute. Vance, a friend from the novel's second half, is more likable. Sarah seems equally distanced from the straight girls who go to strip clubs.
But we do get to know Sarah. Highways and Dancehalls may not be a perfect first novel, but it does what good literature should; it shows us the world as experienced by another human being.
Highways and Dancehalls garnered an unexpected readership and a nomination for Canada's prestigious Governor-General's Award. Diana Atkinson continues to write. It would be a shame if she were only remembered for Highways and Dancehalls. At the same time, if she has to be remembered for only one novel, this is an extraordinary first one.
Diana Atkinson. Interview by Ron Hogan. The Beatrice Interview, 1997. http://www.beatrice.com/interviews/atkinson/
Diana Atkinson. Highways and Dancehalls (1995). Toronto: Vintage, 1996.