Thursday, August 26, 2004


The third (long) story in The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day is titled "The Last Member of the Boela Tribe," and it is wormholed through with miniature stories. These miniature tales are connected through the Boela Tribe--the manufactured name for Bascomb Bowles, transformed by circus moniker into Boela Man, the African Pinhead, his soon-to-be wife, Pearly the Zulu Queen, their child, and the generations hence. There is also the story of the abused elephant Caesar who kills his trainer, this story fractured between what happened and what people say happened.

"The Last Member of the Boela Tribe" takes some chances by being told mostly in summary with some half-scene and just a few full scenes, but the power of Day's storytelling is such that the technique works. This is also a story about grotesquery--what we would consider the physical grotesquery of "freaks," or those manufactured to play freak, and the true grotesquery of those whose actions are grotesque; for example, the man who puts out his cigars on Caesar's tongue. As ever in these stories, Day interweaves fascinating observations about the circus and circus animals into her narrative.

He admired the dexterity of the elephant's trunk--part nose, part hand--a versatile appendage which could also be (depending on the circumstances) cowboy lariat, swath-cutting scythe, water bucket, showman's hook, lightning bolt, mother's hand, flyswatter, trumpet, crane, or exclamation point. Sometimes, a trunk could be a billy club, a loosely held weapon capable of knocking the wind--even the life--out of a man.

I love the rhythm of that passage, with its mix of the lyrical and the practical. There is a subdued jaunty quality to the prose throughout "The Last Member" that serves as a perfect counterpoint to the almost gothic, depressing quality of the described events.

It falls to the last of the Boelas, Chicky Bowles, to finally avenge Caesar and, as the subtitle reads, find "His Place in the World." Chicky is a dwarf, and his essay on dwarfs for a school essay forms one of the story's most beautiful, sad, and interesting passages:

There are many cons to being a dwarf. In ancient times, dwarfs were left outside to die, either from exposure to the cold and heat or from being torn apart by wolves. Sometimes they were sacrificed to the gods so the tribe could get rid of its sins. In some parts of the Orient and South America, small children were captured and placed in small crates--their heads free outside the boxes, their bodies crouched inside. For years, the makers fed the children's mouths and emptied their wastes through small trap doors. Over time, the children became like root-bound plants. When fully grown, the children were freed and taken away to some faraway land, "found" in the woods by their own makers, who displayed them in freak shows as an ancient race of being never before seen on Earth.

In the end, Chicky frees himself from his self-defined role as a dwarf by both embracing that role and by committing an act of release. (I'd quote more from the story, but I don't want to ruin it for any potential readers of the book.)

I really admire the structure of the story, in that Day is able to take what are separate story fragments about disparate lives and connect them through the simple idea of father/mother-to-son-to-granddaughter-to-great-grandson--an idea that only works (freighted down as it is by so much summary) by weaving the story of Caesar through the various pieces of the narrative. So in terms of the story's form, you have a straight line--a descending straight line--and either a spiral around the line depicting Caesar's contribution to the plot, or a series of stitches through time that intersect with this downward plunging line. And, then, at story's end, the spiral and the line come together to form the outline of a door leading out past the end of of the story.

"The Last Member of the Boela Tribe" reminds us that we live in a world of fantasy, and that fantasy doesn't always have to do with escape or with the frivolous. Fantasy can be the defining element of our lives--for self-preservation, for making a living, for getting on in the world.

Bascomb Bowles doesn't live out the fantasy of being an African pinhead for escape. He does it for money, he does it to make a better life for himself.

The real fantasy is the one in which we deny the grotesqueries and wonderfully bizarre elements of our world. The real fantasy is when we try to pretend that the world is an ordinary, mundane place.

(Cathy Day has a web site devoted to information about her book. It includes an excerpt.)