UNDER THE BIG TOP: A Season with the Circus by Bruce Feiler

UNDER THE BIG TOP: A Season with the Circus

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Here is a trip to the circus to be enjoyed by sociologists, etymologists, history buffs, and the morose of all ages. Feiler (Learning to Bow, 1991, etc.) spends a season in whiteface with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers troupe to prove his theory that the circus is in many ways a microcosm of life in the US. By interviewing everyone from the prop guy to the human cannonball, he spotlights a diversity of lifestyles, a mosaic of races and prejudices, and a family unity that, indeed, seem uniquely American. Along the way we are provided with a rich education in circus history, a compendium of popular phrases that were born beneath the big top, and a primer on the finer points of classic acts. Those seeking the difference between European and American styles of tiger training need look no further. Those who think that performers have it easy need only hear the words of an acrobat: ""I have to make it exciting. Not only can I hang by my hair but I can juggle while hanging by my hair."" There is humor, but most of all there is pain: physical pain, romantic heartache, weariness, and familial tragedy. In their perseverance, the 200 or so troupe members show themselves to be what they most want to be recognized as: simply human. With subject matter as intriguing as this, Feiler does well to maintain an unembellished narrative voice. However, the structure he relies on, a play-by-play of what's up in the ring intercut with what is really going down in the performer's life, seems forced. And his inability to resist ending nearly every chapter with a cliffhanger sentence merits a pie in the face. In the age-old tradition of truth coming from the mouth of a fool, this clown's rendition of circus life bounds with humanity.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1995
ISBN: 0060527021
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Scribner