A chorus line of freaks throughout the ages parades here in a determinedly sympathetic but thin and clumsily all-inclusive debut from poet Ditchoff. From the favored dwarves of the Pharaohs to an American hermaphrodite looking back from the 1970s at his/her celebrated career in Weimar Berlin, the narrative winds its way through ancient, medieval, and modern times, lingering for emphasis on the more famous cases. Screaming curses, the hunchback Aesop, favorite of King Croesus, is thrown to his death at Delphi after angering the powers-that-be; bearded Princess Wilgefortis is martyred in fifth-century Lusitania for preferring Christianity to her royal betrothed; dwarf Sir Jeffrey Hudson attains unusual heights of influence as the Queen's trusted courier in the 17th-century court of Charles I in London; and Catherine the Great of Russia seduces the giant Nikita and bears his son. Once the scene shifts to America, the images of similar ``prodigies'' are associated exclusively with more popular entertainments: P.T. Barnum, Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Bros., and ultimately Hollywood (in Tod Browning's controversial film Freaks of 1932). After the Depression and WW II, however, interest in sideshows waned, and with advances in medical technology, the physical aberrations themselves began to be ``fixed''a development regarded with horror by survivors of the close-knit carnival communities as being akin to Nazi cleansing efforts. But while a bevy of narrators interweave points of view to provide continuity as the pageant unfolds, the emphasis is on history rather than on the individuals, leaving no lasting, tangible impressions when all is said and done. Shallow furrows in a fallow field, these snippets and summaries make clear that the world of the malformed could richly reward more sustained efforts to fathom it.
Read full book review >