Monday, July 31, 2006

Howard Bone, “Side Show”

Considering my recent obsession with all things “carnival”, this slim tome was a no-brainer purchase when I found it at Half-Priced Books. Weighing in at a scant 137 pages, it would have been a difficult sell at the cover price. Of course I sat down and read it front-to-back in a single sitting.

Bone was a multi-decade vet of the outdoor show circuit. He served as a ticket-taker, a talker, a magician and a fighter in the “athletic show”. His book is a product of a recovered manuscript that survived his own penchant for tearing up similar material. He relates some entertaining anecdotes about the carnies he worked with, the rubes he provoked, and the dangers he brushed up against while helping out animal handlers.

Bone describes some of the tricks he pulled as a performer in the sideshow. His trademark bit was “The Man Who Can’t Be Hung!” (Yes… I know this is not proper English, but this is how he tells it). For this spectacle, he began by choosing two strapping members of his audience, and had them each pull on one end of a rope that was looped around his neck. He gives a “shout-out” to the strength of the Pittsburgh steelworkers who he remembers as having pulled the hardest (Yay, team!). The trick commenced when he fell down and passed out, only to spring up a second later smiling. He admonishes us repeatedly not to try this, or any of his maneuvers, at home. But the rub is that there is no danger of that happening… Bone NEVER tells us how any of it was done. I guess he is just exercising professional courtesy, but it is frustrating. He’s constantly building his tip, but he never really lets us in the tent.

No sooner do we meet a particular character, or learn about an intriguing situation, and Bone is wrapping up his story abruptly and moving on to the next tantalizing tidbit. He seems to have difficulty letting any of us rubes into the real lifestyle of those who ply the carny trade. Some things are just not for outsiders. I might be more indulgent if I were sitting in front of Bone and “cutting up jackpots”. But hell, I paid my money for the damn book, and I want my just reward. He may be treating us to the “blow-off”, but it’s too obvious that we have been gaffed.

“Side Show” is not a total waste of time. If you haven’t read much literature about life on the road in a carnival, then this might be a proper introduction for you. It even comes with a proper glossary. You can read it on the “donniker” after you are done with your “Possum Belly Queen”. Just don’t assume that doing so is going to make you “with it”.

If you really want to the explore the carnival in depth, I recommend:

James Taylor & Kathleen Kutcher, James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed: ON and Off the Midway

Peter Fenton, Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist

Carnivale, the HBO television series on DVD


Blogger Susan Constanse said...

It sounds really interesting. Have you read any of Longyear's star circus series?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

No... tell me something about it...

6:40 PM  

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