A gritty, solidly detailed first novel, set among traveling circuses and their world-weary “artists” and workingmen: the best novel of its kind since Edward Hoagland’s Cat Man (1955).
The episodic and often ruminative chronicle is narrated by Gary Ruden, a rootless young New Englander alienated from his family and his past (“If things didn’t suit me, if I was simply bored, I ran away”). Wandering through Florida with Dave (the suicidal friend who keeps moving in and out of Gary’s distracted orbit), he lands a job with a seedy itinerant show (shoveling elephant dung, among other unglamorous tasks), “moves up” to “wardrobe,” then “pie car” duty, and eventually becomes a performer by training himself in the difficult art of “wirewalking.” Schmitt juxtaposes against Gary’s taciturn narrative italicized brief chapters that feature other circus people, as well as incidents that undercut his hopeful obsession with a life that withholds, as surely as it seems to promise, the freedom he thinks he’s seeking (“Moving constantly is an unstable means of stability,” he concludes). Variation from the sameness of performance and work routines is located in such scenes as Gary’s depressing reunion with his elderly grandparents in Iowa, a memorable day in Minnesota when Bob Dylan and his kids appear in the audience, and—after Gary has moved on (as one of “the Tino Brothers”) to a European tour with the Italian National Circus—a disillusioning visit to the late Charlie Chaplin’s semi-imposing “mansion” in Switzerland. The story has its longueurs, but it works because Schmitt makes the circus a harshly realistic, perfectly credible metaphor for his young protagonist’s aim to get beyond his limitations—an impulse that’s explored with delicious irony in the elegiac, surprising conclusion.
A fine debut novel, from a writer who has avoided the usual clichés and produced a work of genuine originality.