Dance on Saturday

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dance on Saturday: Stories by Elwin Cotman, due August, 2020.

Cotman Dance on Saturday

The stories in Dance on Saturday were my first exposure to the work of Elwin Cotman, although some have evidently been previously published elsewhere. They range from a gritty magical realism (as in “Seven Watsons,” a story set in the Pittsburgh Job Corps) to a surreal mythic high fantasy (“The Son’s War,” featuring magically incredible craftsmanship). The longest of the stories in this collection is the titular “Dance on Saturday,” which treats a coterie of immortals in contemporary Pittsburgh, wearing the identities of a black church congregation.

Most of these tales have black protagonists, and the African-American experience furnishes notable and sophisticated inflections of Cotman’s fantasies. The unusual exception is the story “Among the Zoologists,” where the narrating character not only fails to signal a racial identity, but deftly avoids claiming a gender over forty pages which incidentally feature some hair-raising sexual escapades. That story also left me with an enhanced appreciation for Cotman’s work, because it demonstrated his intimate fondness for the 20th-century canon of pulp and comic-book fantastic literature, and thus his own writing’s remoteness from its conventions signals his active creativity and independence of mind.

He is a capable stylist as a writer. These six stories tended to be too long for me to finish in a single sitting, and I was consistently glad to pick up the book again at the earliest opportunity. The ends of his stories often break the narrative frame that he has established or transform its context. Each of the tales in Dance on Saturday is memorable for a different reason, and I’m glad to have read them all.