In Canada in 1966, two male traveling companions in their early 20s become carnival performers.
Tevan and James arrive at Buddy Merit’s carnival broke and fresh from an unpleasant incident the details of which readers do not yet know. They offer themselves as a sideshow act: Large, simple, taciturn James will choke the smaller Tevan until he falls unconscious and then resuscitate him. The history of how the two friends came to perform this act is revealed slowly, alongside flashbacks of their shared past at a sanitarium where, as they recovered from tuberculosis, the same boy sexually violated both of them. The evocative first-person narration skillfully interweaves past and present, and readers see how narrator Tevan’s present physical encounters vividly and painfully recall his history. He wrestles with these questions: Is sex the currency of love or of power? Is there such a thing as surety? The sideshow and its cast of troubled performers and greedy bosses come to life through slow and careful characterization, as do the intimate and caring friendship and interdependence between Tevan and James. As a portrait of a victim emerging from trauma, it compels unreservedly. It is unfortunate, however, that there are no positive portrayals of same-gender sex in the novel despite Tevan’s deep understanding of the world’s fear of “men and women with particular desires”; the effect is to crystallize same-sex encounters as sources of trauma and deviance, and only heterosexual relationships offer an escape.
An eloquent, elegant exploration of trauma and memory, though more care could have been given to its treatment of same-sex relationships.