Don Noble
1:05 pm
Mon April 24, 2006

Sideshow

Even though many of these ten stories originally appeared in very fine journals such as The Southern Review and Carolina Quarterly, there has been a little buzz about how Sidney Thompson of Fairhope, Alabama, was having trouble publishing them as a collection. These are good stories, but they are also odd and disquieting stories.

Even though many of these ten stories originally appeared in very fine journals such as The Southern Review and Carolina Quarterly, there has been a little buzz about how Sidney Thompson of Fairhope, Alabama, was having trouble publishing them as a collection. These are good stories, but they are also odd and disquieting stories.

The volume's title gives a good clue. What one sees in a sideshow are freaks, and the first story, "The Man Who Never Dies," takes place largely at the Mid South Fair, in Memphis, where there are indeed an "Alligator Woman, the World's Smallest Horse, the World's Largest Midget, the Two-Headed Pig, and finally, The Man Who Never Dies." Although the setting involves sideshow freaks, the story itself is not so odd.

A young man, married and with a daughter, must reconcile himself with his dying father, a man who played football for Ole Miss against Bear Bryant in the Liberty Bowl in 1961, and talked about it obsessively for the rest of his life.

No, the problem is not the freaks in the sideshow. The problem here is the freaks everywhere else, in almost all the other stories. The Georgia novelist Harry Crews, himself an expert on freaks, says in Blood and Grits that we are all freaks, all have a "psychological, sexual, or even spiritual abnormality," but we can hide it from the world. If you are less than three feet tall, or a lady with a beard, you can't.

Sidney Thompson is, after all, operating in the tradition of the Southern Gothic--Faulkner has the idiot Benjy Compson, Flannery O'Connor has her one-armed men, there are dwarves in Carson McCullers and Negro albinos in Erskine Caldwell. Southern literature is famous for its freaks, but we prefer them at a chronological distance.

In Thompson's story "The Aristotelian," one character is a 750-pound-man who is eating himself to death. He and his wife are lining up another man to take his place as husband and glutton.

In "The Voyeur," a teenager, Bruce, is sexually obsessed with his mother and spies on her from behind bushes in the yard and even from the branches of a tree as mom is carrying on, adulterously, in her bedroom. It's not pretty to contemplate, but is more subtle than Ernest in "Ernest the Bicyclist," who is 24 years old, a sadist, and does actually sleep with his mentally retarded mother.

In "The Gatherers," an odd young woman, Lilian, gets into a tense, possibly dangerous, confrontation with a pair of rednecks over possession of some roadkill. She wants to bury it. They want to eat it.

A chilling but very fine story is "The Romanticist and the Classicist," in which a father and son kill a neighbor, rationally, in freezing cold blood, quoting Shakespeare, Milton, Sophocles, and Nietzsche as they go.

Sidney Thompson, like Harry Crews, seems alive to the oddness in the world around us, and writes of it frighteningly well. The real problem is whether this will gain him a wide readership. In 1922 in Paris, Ernest Hemingway showed Gertrude Stein his story of a rough seduction on a wooden dock in "Up in Michigan." Stein responded, "It's good . . . . That's not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it."

Stein also thought Joyce's Ulysses was unhangable, and "Up in Michigan" has been printed, reprinted, and anthologized a hundred times. So, tastes do change, and loads of movie fans enjoy Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But when you read Sideshow, be warned. There are some cruel, cold, bent characters in these stories. As there are, of course, on the evening news.

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