Dancing Naked: A Novel

Dancing Naked: A Novel

by Robert H. Van Wagoner




 Terry Walker is an even-tempered, successful mathematics professor, comfortable with his world—the order and predictability of it. He likes the kind of life one lives in a quiet Salt Lake City subdivision. At his children’s births, he masks his terror with numbers—his wife’s contractions and dilations, blood pressure, heart rate. At funerals he absorbs his grief by calculating the cubic feet of earth the coffin and vault will displace.

But control is illusive, something his fifteen-year-old son Blake never lets him forget. A sensitive boy, Blake has refused to eat meat since the time he could walk. Fearing he will hurt his friends’ feelings, Blake withdraws from a spelling bee that he could easily win. More importantly, however, Blake harbors a secret that he keeps from Terry.

Driving this important first novel are issues and characters Thomas Mann himself would have found compelling. Terry Walker’s inability to accept what he knows and does not know about his child, what he possibly could never accept, exacts a high price. Almost at the threshold of insanity, the father begins waging a war against a powerful chaos. Van Wagoner takes his readers beyond a simple foretelling of what happens in such situations to deep beneath the story’s skin, to a place readers will find familiar and perhaps even irresistible.

Tim Sandlin has commented on Dancing Naked (Sandlin is the author of Skipped Parts, a New York Times “Notable Book.”), noting how “remarkably clean” Van Wagoner’s prose is. He calls him a “first-rate writer” and adds that he “stares deep into the heart of intolerance, grief, and redemption, and does not blink.”

David Lee (Western States Book Award for My Town) considers Van Wagoner “the best contemporary writer in Utah.” Elaborating, he writes: “Reading Van Wagoner is like opening a can of biscuits: there’s the pop, the swelling, the aroma of fresh dough, and the anticipation of flavor. And the wonder: how can he fit so much into such a small vessel?”

Similarly, Levi Peterson (Association for Mormon Letters Book Award for Canyons of Grace) praises the “mastery of language” and “perfectly cadenced sentences” in Dancing Naked. He says that it is remarkable that Van Wagoner can so perfectly present “the effects of male ego—a punitive anger turned against homosexuality—upon three generations of a family.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781560851301
Publisher: Signature Books, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/15/1999
Edition description: 1
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner (shown here with wife Cheri) is the recipient of Best Short Fiction awards from Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Sunstone, and Weber Studies, and has been published in The Best of Writers at Work, In Our Lovely Deseret, and other anthologies. Dancing Naked received the highest literary awards possible from the Utah Arts Council (Publication Prize) and the Utah affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book (Utah Book Award).

Rob has also been a Resident Artist with the Utah and Wyoming Arts in Education programs, and a Writers at Work faculty member. He was Outstanding Graduate in English and psychology at Weber State University (Ogden, Utah). He and his wife are Utah natives but now live in Washington state. They say they are the proud parents of two sons, one rottweiler, and a big orange lizard. 

Read an Excerpt

 So it isn’t so surprising to Terry that Blake died prematurely, in the throes of some fantasy, trying to avoid the real world. Blake had his mother, after all, to assure him he needed no reality.

Terry watches Rayne. It’s the realities of the world for her now, Blake’s box dangling not so many feet above the vault in which it will all be sealed for good. She isn’t doing as well as before. She stands pressing Mindy against her, the palms of her hands over Mindy’s flat chest, drawing, pulling, fusing the smaller shoulders into the larger ribcage, the young head into the young-middle-aged breasts. Rayne and Mindy are connected, and it takes all four of their legs to stand, and then only with the assistance of Alice on one side, Mother on the other. Rayne and Mindy stare ahead at the same undefined point. They could be an act, these two, with their uniform performance, their re-definition and repetition.

“Before offering the benediction upon the grave,” the minister begins, “let us speak briefly of our Lord and Savior’s sacrifice, of his mercy and grace which offers all reconciliation and peace. Let us take comfort in his resurrection and in the coming resurrection of Blake Walker and of all mankind …”

When Terry and Rayne first discovered they were going to have a child, a friend told them to choose their OB/GYN carefully because it was he or she who would escort their child into the world. The friend said, “You want to have a doctor you like, because every time you see that doctor you’ll feel an obligation, a twinge of gratitude and debt and embarrassment. There’s something fundamentally intimate, more intimate even than sex, about the delivery of a child. You want to suffer that moment with a person you like.” At the time the advice seemed unorthodox. Terry would’ve chosen based upon capability, giving little thought to likability. He wouldn’t have made the two equal because he didn’t yet understand the chemistry. But their friend was right. The Walkers still send their OB/GYNs Christmas cards each year. They’re bound to the doctors who escorted their children into the world. And by extension, Terry wonders if they’ll be bound to this man who escorts their child out of the world. Terry can’t imagine it. He doesn't feel anything for this minister, other than glad that he’s not Mormon. Terry doesn’t hear the man’s words, only his voice. Terry won’t feel gratitude and debt, though he’ll feel embarrassment. They won’t likely send this man a Christmas card.

Blake’s final pigeon hole, the one in which he must stay forever, gapes seven feet by five feet and drops six feet. That’s 210 cubic feet of displaced dirt, 362,880 cubic inches. A rhombus, a rectangle (every square a rectangle but not every rectangle a square), a cube, a container of geometric knowns. Terry’s impressed with the precision of these graves. He wants to meet the men who dig them. The corners are sharp and the walls are straight, perpendicular to one another, as though cut with a giant cookie cutter forged especially for stamping graves. Terry wants to ask questions of the men who stamp out graves.

“Does every casket require the same sized vault, and does every vault require the same sized grave? Or is every casket different, every vault and thus every grave? It would seem,” he would continue objectively, as Rayne might do, “that each casket—so much a statement of the inhabitant thereof—would be different, individual in size, fabric, and labor to represent the life but mostly the death of the owner. An horrendous task, digging so many custom graves for so many custom vaults for so many custom caskets, but appropriate, nonetheless, if one takes the time to consider the custom lives.” But, realistically, he’d come back to the issue at hand—he’s speaking, after all, of a pigeon hole, a compartment of classification, a classification by similarity. “Do categorically similar people end up in categorically similar graves?” he’d ask. “For someone in the know, is it only necessary to read the obituary or the police report (depending upon which, if either, is correct) to know the exact size of the grave, perhaps the exact coffin? Take, for example, my father and my son: Both died at the tip end of ejaculation, their lives spit from them like their seeds. Seeds which outlived them by hours, most likely. They ended it in the same coffin, in a vault in a hole of identical size. Doesn’t it seem possible,” Terry would implore his grave diggers, “that I speak a fundamental truth? That the ways of our lives and deaths predestine us to the kinds and sizes and appearances we’ll last be remembered by?”

And the grave diggers would say, “It’s all standardized, buddy: adults, children, infants. Big, medium, small. It’s right here.” They’d poke at their charts. “We dig the hole, we lower the stiff, we throw in the dirt. A couple of months the dirt settles, gets hard and chummy with the world, and you can’t even find the edge of the hole. Three sizes, one of ‘em fits ‘most everybody. When it’s under the ground, nobody remembers the difference, anyway.”

“But I do,” Terry would say. “I never forget a numerical value.” The grave diggers wouldn t understand, so Terry would try, “There seems no justice in the standardized approach.” The grave diggers wouldn’t get that either, so Terry would nod his head and say, “Well, you dig very nice pigeon holes nonetheless, very sharp and very straight.” And though the conversation would be over, Terry would appreciate these men, if for nothing else, for the precision with which they perform their standardized task.

“Amen,” says the wall of people surrounding Blake’s grave.

What People are Saying About This

David Lee

Reading Van Wagoner is like opening a can of biscuits: there's the pop, the swelling, the aroma of fresh dough, and the anticipation of flavor. And the wonder: how can he fit so much into such a small vessel?

Tim Sandlin

[Van Wagoner] stares deep into the heart of intolerance, grief, and redemption, and does not blink.

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Dancing Naked 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explores feelings and emotions of a family about to fall apart. Van Wagoner dares to address topics that are important, but does so with heart and honesty. This novel may frighten conservative readers, but will, hopefully, help them understand parts of society that we sometimes hide from. The interaction of the characters is honest and human. Very reminiscent of Judith Guest. An important novel.