'The Circus in Winter' -- a novel of power, beauty and grace

On Books

July 25, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

There is dazzling joy when into the hands of a critic there falls a book of such deftness and vision that it defies conventional superlatives. Such a book is The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (Harcourt, 288 pages, $23).

The circus -- clowns, acts of spectacular daring, formidable animals under fragile control, magic and the grotesque -- long has been a seedbed for artistry. Novels, operas, paintings, poetry, song and story have plumbed and celebrated the excitements, ironies and delights of circus life and circus people. Over much of the world, kids actually did run away with circuses as they left town -- and may still do. Is there a more enduring and telling image of the complexity of human existence than the tragic clown -- Pagliacci? It escapes me.

Cathy Day, drawing on family legend and records and her own childhood, has taken the broad canvas of 120 years of intertwined circus life on which to present her work.

She begins with Wallace Porter, a prosperous Indiana livery operator, horse dealer and Civil War veteran. His wife, Irene, a New York child of society, had wanted a simple life. She dies painfully two years after their wedding. Porter is left a tortured loner. In the 1880s, he decides to sell his business and buy a bankrupt circus that is coming through town.

The circus becomes his life, and circus people the populace of his world.

The characters are vivid but ghostly, accessible but mysterious, singular. Jennie Dixieanna, an astonishing acrobat, is an Alabama-born phantom. Chicky the dwarf is a moving fugue of isolation, agony and pluck. These are strange and various people, these freaks and victims of exploitation, with weird roles and closeness to African animals. They march and spin and leap through the book -- haunting, real, human. Early on, a huge bull elephant kills his sadistic handler, leaving generations of legends. There is a hideous flood in which all the animals and many of the circus people die. There are catastrophes and ecstasies.

Cathy Day was born in Peru, Ind. -- obviously the model for Lima, Ind., the main site of the novel. Peru, like Lima, served as winter quarters for circuses. And certain people in parts of the book are clearly taken from, or rather modeled upon, actual women and men Day grew up with or in the shadows of. Her own great-great uncle was an animal trainer who was killed by a bull elephant in his charge. She also has done an immense amount of research about circuses and history.

The book is consists of 11 chapters, many of which were published, some in different form, in literary reviews over more than 10 years. Now a professor of English in the College of New Jersey, Day revised and drew the pieces together into what is insistently a single novel, a story that builds and evolves with compelling integrity of narrative.

She handles time with almost magical deftness, leaping from the 1880s to 2000, back and forth. Sequences are chronological only for short stretches, for single stories or bits of them. The threads of people's lives and defining or epiphanic incidents interweave, winding and knotting and breaking. But the overall saga sustains a gripping continuum -- an extraordinary and moving examination of the meaning, or meanings, of these lives.

Day is a wonderful storyteller, with a remarkable sense of motion, of pace and economy, with no clutter of digression. She is a lyric writer, her language lush, ornamented with metaphor and turn of phrase that come unexpectedly, brightly, with flashes of poetic delicacy. Passage after passage rings with music, laden with imagery, some drawn from history and fable and circus lore or usage, some of it entirely fresh, fashioned to fit a turn of the tale.

Jennie Dixieanna, who becomes famed for her "Spin of Death" aerialist act, is traced from a dreadful Gulf Coast childhood. As a girl, she is counseled by a wise if primitive rural mystic called Sister. Day explores grief with this tiny but typical gem:

"At night the water cried. Sister told Jennie that long ago, Spanish priests used baubles and rum to lure the Biloxi Indians to Christ, away from their goddess mother. She rose from the sea, beckoning to her children from atop a mountain of wave and foam, and the Biloxi rushed into the sea to beg her forgiveness. She spread her arms, scooped them up, and took them with her to the bottom of the Gulf. Sister said, 'The sea's brimming with failed mothers and their sorry children. All of them crying, and their tears lap the shore.' "

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