I picked up Slow Dancing on Dinosaur Bones by Lana Witt (Scribner 1996) from a local library sale a few years back. Intrigued by the title, I tossed it into my purchase pile without hesitation. ($5 boxes, y’all. $5 boxes.) It’s sat on my TBR since. I finally picked it up and read the blurb, surprised to see it is a southern gothic novel. (The title and cover had me envisioning a sweet romance, heavy on paleontology.) I love a southern gothic, and the references to Flannie Flagg and Lee Smith had me quickly settling in with it.
Talk about missed opportunities. The book had such potential, ticking off each ingredient of a southern gothic with ease but falling victim to trying to be “too much.” The two main plots don’t work in harmony, and I wish the focus had been Rosalee or the mining company – not straddling between the two.
Set in Pike, Kentucky, this slice of life novel is full of the grotesque characters and dark humor expected with a southern gothic. Gilman Lee runs a mechanic shop, but he’s better known for his wild parties, bluegrass, bootleg liquor, and womanizing. Gemma Collet is marked by depression after her body loses all pigmentation due to severe vitiligo as a teen. Self-loathing and hate make her quite the cynical and difficult person. Rosalee Wilson, Gilman’s ex-flame with the beautiful voice, had left town after developing a coke habit but has returned clean and on the run. There’s Ten Fifteen, Gilman’s best friend, whose hands are stuck like the hands of a clock at ten fifteen. There are literal skeletons and figurative ones. There’s the mining company trying to cheat folks. There’s Tom Jett, a philosopher from California who grew sick of the ocean and sought the mountains. And there’s Frank Denton, the villain who will do whatever it takes to find Rosalee. And let’s not forget the waste of space that is the drug-dealing banker.
Witt hits the heart of the town best when music is playing, and those sections are some of the best written of the novel. Rosalee’s attempts to escape Frank and Frank’s hunt for her are intriguing but not fully fleshed out. Gilman taking on the mining company and the relationship between Pike residents and the company could have carried the novel without the abusive and murderous Frank and Rosalee plotline. There were a lot of missed opportunities by mushing these two plots together, and it left me a bit disappointed.
This was the type of read that makes me mad because I could see such potential, and it just fell short. I also don’t think the cover and title work with this story.