A first novel, set at the turn of the century, that tries for a Ragtime-esque flavor of old Americana; its separately...



A first novel, set at the turn of the century, that tries for a Ragtime-esque flavor of old Americana; its separately evocative moments, however, aren't enough to make up for an attenuated thinness of conception in the whole. A ""history of childhood oddity"" attaches itself to Jay Mount in his hometown of Bolusburgh, Ohio--he shuffles strangely when he walks, once ""loses"" a younger playmate (who falls over a cliff), later takes up with a bad-smelling drifter who dies when struck by lightning. Not quite all there, Mount leaves town with a band of musicians, ends up working at a shingle factory in Fort Wayne and living in a boardinghouse, then (in one of the novel's very strongly imagined passages) spends 30 days in jail for having, however ""innocently,"" stolen a photograph. A stint shoveling coal in a factory that makes the new-fangled ""e-lec-tri-city"" precedes Mount's going on the road again--in a half. surreal and symbolic journey southward (like Huck's) that results in his joining a circus, becoming an assistant elephant trainer, and traveling with the troupe to Florida (where Thomas Edison is stitched into the story), then north to Washington, D.C. (where a dirty trick is gratuitously played on Teddy Roosevelt), Baltimore, and New York. Too limited a character to gather much dramatic force about him, Mount drifts in and out of the fringes of circus politics, is seduced by an Englishwoman who joins the circus as an elephant trainer, and has his own slowly-gathering love affair with a moody but favorite old elephant named Chloe--who, in a kind of lovers' quarrel, ""murders"" Mount by dashing him to the ground. The peculiarly anti-climactic event of Mount's death allows the novel to close with the ""execution"" of Chloe as a public spectacle at Coney Island: she's electrocuted, while Thomas Edison and his helpers catch the moment on film with their hand-cranked cameras. Brightly-colored pieces that might have fared better as stories, but, in novel form, a whole that labors for purpose, and for a meaning that just won't grow.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1987