A collection of linked short stories about a cut-rate carnival show traveling through the American South during the early 20th century.
In 1910, patent medicine salesman Earl Beasley launches a “Traveling Amusements” show, and his first “human attractions” are people whom he’d been unable to cure with his concoctions. Earl’s sons, Stan, Tom, and Earl Jr., take over in 1912, and they continue the family business with ruthless hucksterism, amassing a collection of people whom they market under such names as “Flipper Boy,” “Hammer Toe,” and “Lizard Man.” Each has a unique, poignant story, rooted in social segregation and a desire for autonomy and connection. Julian Henry, the aforementioned “Lizard” person, is embittered by both his father’s revulsion and his mother’s adulation. Tiny Laveaux, billed as the “World’s Smallest Woman,” escapes the tawdry reality of her daily exposure to the gawking public via transcendent sex with the armless “Hammer Toe.” Beulah Divine, the “World’s Largest Woman,” who’s perpetually forced to remain heavy by the profit-hungry Beasleys, endures a barrage of mocking taunts by cherishing a private secret—her real name. Cheever, an African American roustabout, ran away from his difficult life as a sharecropper only to find that the carnival is just another type of bondage. Seligman’s (A Pocket Book of Prompts, 2015, etc.) episodic narrative hangs on themes of loneliness, suffering, and the ascendance of human kindness. Although the setting might give rise to fears of stereotyping or sensationalism, each character emerges as a complex person who’s part of an unconventional but still familiar community. Seligman’s prose is vivid and captivating, as when she describes Julian’s first encounter with Tiny: “her eyes darting every which way until they landed on him like great splats of rain.” Her portrayal of a society teetering between the past and the future is subtle, and although many of the characters’ stories are sad, there are recurring moments of gentleness.
A riveting fictional meditation on the persistent drive to find acceptance and connection.