The World's Most Shocking, Horrifying Three-Armed Fire-Breathing Bearded
Book Review! (Born Without Legs!) (Raised by Wolves!) (Fused at the Spine
to a Blind Hermaphrodite!)
by Sam Anderson || Author's Links
Side Show: My Life With Geeks, Freaks, & Vagabonds in the Carny Trade
Sun Dog Press, Northville, MI.
I should admit something right away. I have only been to the circus once, as a skittish and moody 4-year-old, and I hated it. There were too many people; it was hot; it smelled funny. I remember being terrified by all the performers, especially the clowns, who seemed like a pack of rainbow-colored sadists torturing each other with oversized props. I loved the animals, though, especially the elephants. My most vivid memory of the trip, in fact, is of riding one of them after the show: my family and I, feeling like Chinese nobility, had just finished the awkward climb onto his back when our elephant - instead of shuffling around the ring at two mph like he was supposed to - suddenly stopped. He just stood there for a second, and then he started to pee in the sawdust. And I mean really seriously piss, in that vicious, thumb-over-the-garden-hose urinary flood only an elephant can generate (whales can probably do it too, but it's different underwater). Everyone in the elephant-riding line stopped and stared at us, wondering what we could have done wrong, like maybe squeezed his stomach really hard with our legs (which I don't remember doing, but knowing my brother, it could have happened). We became the show, a family stranded on top of the world's largest Mountain Dew dispenser. Under all the scrutiny, I started to feel somehow morally responsible for the whole spectacle.
I offer this circus mini-tragedy by way of contrast with Howard Bone, who was heroically unsqueamish about the circus. He would have sat on a pissing elephant for days - weeks - and whistled. As a young man, Bone developed an addiction to circuses (elephants, clowns, all of it), carnivals (which I have more experience with, much of it devoted to regurgitating corn dogs) and fairs (corn dogs again) - and he hacks it all up neatly in Side Show, his slim but lovable account of life as a carny. Though he joined the carnival hoping to work as a magician, Bone usually got stuck doing other, less glamorous chores: chasing scattered monkeys, wrestling molting cobras, that kind of thing. His life became a decades-long struggle from carnival to circus to fair, hitchhiking, hopping trains, trying to resuscitate third-hand jalopies. And then he died. He loved all of it.
During his carny lifetime, Bone probed every dark corner of the circus, all its rackets, swindles, and scams. His usual workstation, though, was in the side show, a team of self-proclaimed freaks trying to drum up cash with extra limbs, inexplicable hair, and repulsive talents. The book is one long roll call of strange characters. There's the Giant Dwarf Fire Eater ("Giant Dwarf" is oxymoronic, but I guess there are weirder things in my title, so we can let that go); Bill, the Boy With Two Faces (it strikes me as a failure of the circus imagination, by the way, that the Boy With Two Faces is allowed to be called Bill, instead of something like Zandar or Duossimo or Talantchahoo - but I guess we'll let that one go too); and the Pneumatic Man, who could "extend his stomach out nearly three feet" (the trick is, apparently, gas-related). And there are many, many more. The effect of this small army of grotesques is, strangely, normalization: oddity, in such profusion, starts to look ordinary. This leads Bone to a little epiphany:
"What I realized was that all of them - fat people, skinny people, deformed people, giants, dwarfs, the whole assemblage shown in gaudy color on the bannerline - all of them were human beings too. They had their favorite foods, love affairs, hatreds, personal problems, and private lives just like you and me."
In this spirit, Bone abandons his friends' disgusting talents in order to show us their inner lives, which are often memorable and surprising. He tells us about Velma, the star of the raunchy Girl Show ("it had a mind of its own, that pelvis"), who reads the Bible between striptease acts. Chief Raincloud, the faux-Indian fire eater (he's actually Italian), who teases a gullible errand boy so incessantly the boy finally chases him off with a stick. The Human Skeleton and the Fat Man ("Slim" and "Tiny"), who are inseparable friends.
Bone reserves special empathy for one of his best (and my favorite of his) side show friends, Nancy the Seal Girl. "Nancy the Seal Girl was only about three feet tall," he writes. "She had been born with arms, legs, and feet stubby enough to resemble the flippers of a seal. But there was nothing wrong with her heart." That matter-of-fact contrast between Nancy's flipper limbs and her generous heart is simultaneously funny and touching - one of Bone's favorite emotional effects, though I can never tell whether he's doing it on purpose or not. (After finishing the book, incidentally, I was sad to find a notice on the copyright page that, while the book's characters are real, they have been given fictional names. Even, I wonder, the Pneumatic Man? Even Nancy the Seal Girl?)
One of Side Show's great perks is the behind-the-scenes look at Bone's favorite magic tricks. This is especially satisfying for gullible spectators like myself, who consistently believe that, yes, the magician performing at the mall probably did just whip a mystical rabbit out of some outer-galaxy wormhole concealed behind his hat. (My career in magic, if anyone is wondering, began and ended with a fake plastic orange thumb that didn't match my skin tone closely enough to fool my nearsighted little sister.) Though he can be tight-lipped, occasionally, about specifics ("I won't tell you, the reader - unless, of course, you want to send me a hundred bucks!"), Bone gives us several titillating peeks behind the curtain. He knows all the flashy tricks, too: Spidora, in which "a living girl seems to have the body of a spider," The Headless Lady, The Human Pin Cushion - even "Girl to Gorilla," in which (get this) "an attractive girl in leopard scanties turns into a big hairy gorilla." The old Levitating Woman trick, it turns out, depends on a crank connected to some kind of "lifting apparatus." (I always thought she was just floating.) "You may be a person of conscience in other walks of life," Bone writes, "but on a carnival you soon learn to mute that particular part of your brain." At one point he helps out with a carnival's "Wild Man" act, in which a guy named Steve, tricked out in extra hair and caveman clothes, runs around a dirt arena drooling and moaning at all the ladies; to finish, he bites the head off a live chicken and drinks blood from its neck (this act, Bone notes with nostalgia, was later shut down by the SPCA). In the end, Bone's practicality toward illusion demystifies magic, just like he unfreaks the freaks. Magic starts to look like welding or grooming cats - just another practical skill, something you do for a buck.
Like any underworld populated by a special class, carny civilization speaks its own language. Bone often writes in this clever, sometimes baffling dialect, invoking such exotics as gazonies, candy butchers, and possum belly queens. He seems especially qualified to bring it to us, too: at the circus, he often works as a "talker," a kind of manic used car salesman who spouts "bally" (short for "ballyhoo," a blend of taunts, lies, and exaggerations) in an effort to lure "marks" (spectators) into the show. "Really good patter," he says, "can make people vomit or pass out." His prose is all patter, like a man trying to sell you a ticket, except most of the time he seems to be telling the truth. A six-page glossary in the back of the book helps the circus layman sort through new vocabulary, which can be mystifyingly subtle. The above use of "bally," for instance, should not be confused with "Bally Broads," in which "bally" is a bastard form of the word "ballet" and refers to the circus's glamour girls. Also, the term "bull" refers not only to both male and female elephants, but to corrupt railroad cops as well.
Side Show is a tiny book, but it has the effect, somehow, of a 700-page novel, spanning over 50 years of freakish friendship, hatred, marriage, and death. It's a loose compendium of tall tales ("Don't ask me how, but that tornado had blown a full-grown rooster into the jug!"), weird advice ("Never mess with a carny - most of all one who's called 'Crazy Cobra'") and circus factoids ("'By the twenty-four swinging balls of the twelve apostles!' is the most colorful expression I ever heard"). The oozing clump of cotton candy gluing it all together is Bone's personality, a potent glob of humor, honesty, empathy - and (despite his spindly physique) toughness. He has no trouble holding his own with the circus's trademark crew of "winos, potheads, escaped jailbirds, sadists, and roughnecks of the most primitive sort." "I was known among my fellow fighters as 'The Professor,'" he writes. "That's because I had 'educated' many of these would-be killers. They all graduated from the local hospital with a degree in 'Never Again.'" Once again, it's hard to tell whether he's joking. And again, it doesn't matter.
The book ends, sadly, with Bone as an impoverished old man, his hands too arthritic to do any of the old tricks. He died, in fact, soon after he finished the book. According to one of the book's prefaces, his last wish was "to be buried upside down so the world can kiss my ass."
Side Show is a useful corrective for those of us who - based on weird childhood elephant trauma or just tasteful disdain - have stigmatized the circus. There are no real freaks in Bone's circus, no real magic: it all comes down to the gut-level, dirty struggle of people trying to stay alive. The true freaks, in Bone's version, are the affluent suckers in the audience, the "marks," who are consistently rude, arrogant, and stupid - and, unfortunately, necessary for Nancy the Seal Girl and the Pneumatic Man to earn a living. Even here, though, Bone summons some charity. "If I was pandering to a caveman mentality," he writes, "…well, it was a mentality I didn't invent. It seems to linger on in all of us."
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