Mon November 8, 2004
The Circus in Winter
You pick up a book about the circus and you think, man, this has just got to be fun, and usually it is. The Circus in Winter is such a book.
By Don Noble
There are certain subjects for fiction that seem intrinsically right, that just have to work. You pick up a book about the circus and you think, man, this has just got to be fun, and usually it is. The Circus in Winter is such a book.
Cathy Day is from Peru, Indiana, once the winter home of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. In fact, her great-uncle was an elephant trainer. As a child, before she went to college and then came to Tuscaloosa to take the MFA degree in fiction writing, Cathy Day heard circus stories, not a lot, but enough so that her imagination could take those stories as raw material and create the fiction collected here.
,i>The Circus in Winter is a winner. The eleven stories are so tightly connected that Day could have published the book as a novel, had she chosen. I have read lots of novels less structurally coherent than this volume.
And the characters?not only are there lions and tigers and elephants, oh, my, but trapeze artists, clowns, and sideshow freaks, all with bizarre stories. Jennie Dixieanna of Bayou Le Batre, Alabama, is a major recurring character in The Circus in Winter. In her act, The Spin of Death, she hangs high above the crowd, with a rope around one wrist, and spins. Her wrist is rubbed raw and ?every one of her performances broke the wound open and left the rope stained red.? The crowd goes wild.
Her friends advise: you should wear a glove on that hand to protect your wrist. She refuses, and bleeds all season. A good reader will rightly wonder why, and there you have the perfect organic symbol. She wants to bleed, to keep her wound. Why? In the course of learning more about Jennie Dixianna, you sort of learn why.
You are also told that at one point an elephant, an old tired elephant named Caesar, kills his trainer, Hans Hofstadter, and is then poisoned and shot two hundred times. Why did old Caesar, all 9,500 pounds of him, toss Hans into the Winnesaw River, hold him under, and crush him? In the course of time we learn more about Hans, his assistant, Elephant Jack, and what drove Caesar mad.
The stories in this volume are all worth talking about. In the story ?Winnesaw,? there is an epic flood, with no ark. In this story, the animals drown, two by two. It?s a catastrophe, but Day makes it archetypal. Maybe ?nothing ever stops happening when it?s over.? This river is the same water as the flood of 1913, as the Great Flood. ?[W]e [don?t] live just once. We live when things first happen and every time we remember that first time, we live it again.?
There is the story of a perfectly normal African-American boy, Bascomb Bowles, who is hired to be Boela Man, the African Pinhead, and earns a living in the sideshow for years. Humiliating for him? Yes. But, when offered the job, he says, ??Sir, I ain?t from Africa. . . . I mean, I never been there.?
Hollenback [the owner] clapped him on the back. ?These rubes don?t know Africa from Oregon . . . . All you gotta do is act like you?re from the jungle. Growl at the white folks. Scare ?em a little.?? Bascomb agrees. It?s easy money.
There are stories here of American gypsies come to town. They are the consummate con men, leaving a wake of theft and unpaid bills behind them. Cathy Day may hear from the Gypsy Anti-Defamation League, if there should be such an unlikely organization. There is a tale about softball featuring Eddie Feigner, The King, and His Court, who were the Harlem Globetrotters of softball and should not be forgotten.
Day has managed, in a short space, not only a breadth of subjects, but also a volume of generational fiction. We learn what happens to the circus people after the business goes belly-up in 1939, what they do afterwards, how they adjust to life among civilians, and how their children fare. Often, the answer is, not very well, and so on to the third and fourth generations.
Day worked on these stories, honing and perfecting them, for twelve years, and they are about as good as they can be. Individually these stories or chapters were published in fine places like the Southern Review and Shenandoah. Collected here, they make for a fine, highly imagined, smart, coherent, amusing book of fiction.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.