Friday, February 13, 2009

Sara Gruen, "Water for Elephants" (2006).

Every once in awhile a book hits the wider public consciousness, and the relatively small group of readers left in this nation recommend it to each other. Sometimes it is an activist effort- new age beliefs or other ideas that challenge the contemporary belief construct, masquerading as a novel. These often seem revelatory while you are reading them, and then slightly silly in retrospect, after a bit of time passes. And then there are other books that are hyped for their pure escapism. The discriminating reader is usually just as suspicious of these works as he/she is of polemical fiction. If it's as popular as it seems, it follows that it could well be an appeal to the lowest common denominator. In these instances, one considers the source(s) of the recommendation.

There is reading that you do while laying in the sand at the beach, and there is the kind that you engage alone at night on your living room couch. Obviously these categories are subjective and mutable. If I can identify a single quality that distinguishes Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants from most of the offerings of the American publishing industry, I'd have to say that it is a title that would find an appropriate home in the hands of a sunbather and/or a domestic recluse. It's not necessarily "highbrow literature", but it won't insult your intelligence unless you are hypercritical. It's 300 pages (and change) that turn quickly, and it has just enough meat on its skeleton to sustain the reader's imagination.

I know why the people that told me to read this did so. They know that I have a moderate obsession dedicated to "show business". I use this term in the old sense, referring to "outmoded" forms of entertainment such as vaudeville, carnivals, and independently-run amusement parks. Of course it is a reasonable leap of logic to suspect that I'd be interested in a story set within a circus company in the 1930's. Indeed it didn't take me long to get captivated by the vernacular of the traveling show. It's easily apparent that Gruen took the time to learn the language, and her work wouldn't be nearly enjoyable if she hadn't. For me, it's a quick way to my heart. I love getting into the intricacies of argot, especially when it comes to the bygone "show era".

The plot itself is only marginally compelling. The protagonist is a newly-orphaned young adult named Jacob Jankowski, who drops out of his veterinary program at Cornell right before final exams, and hops a train. He happens to land on bed of a stock car used by the Benzini Brothers Circus, a spectacle in between a "Mud Show" and Ringling Brothers. It doesn't take long for Jacob to realize that he needs to grab whatever opportunity he can, given that he is living in the midst of a Great Depression that is ravaging what used to be the Middle Class. So he embraces a new way of life, and becomes a "First of May" in the rough-and-tumble, gritty world of performers and working men that separately and together ensure that the show goes on.

Sure, Jacob falls in love with a woman (Marlena, who so happens to be married), and manages to ingratiate himself to the owner (Uncle Al) and the Superintendent of Animals (August, who is Marlena's husband), at the same time becoming mired in a nasty love triangle. It's pretty typical melodrama... basically soap opera stuff. But for me the point is not the narrative, but rather the details. Gruen took the time to research the ambiance and background of her thematic material. This effort lends a sense of authenticity to her tale. For this she deserves unreserved accolades. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the plot is predictable, or the relationships cliché. She has successfully evoked a time-and-place long past. That alone justifies all her efforts.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The research and actually living it were very obvious to me. Trite sentimental story in an interesting background. I read and forgot it a couple of years ago. Towners and marks. ho hum JM

1:49 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

"Towners and marks. ho hum"

That's easy for you to say...

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gary Jennings who writes historical novels did a couple on the circus. They are flawlessly researched and he is fasinated with the material and shares it well. Check out 'Grand Promenade' and 'Center Ring' Marion Zimmer Bradley, a woman who usually writes science fiction, wrote a beautiful love story full of rich dimensions of well researched little known circus. Check out 'The Catch Trap'.
I will reread Water for the Elephants.
(sorry to be so "sucker sore") JM

10:58 PM  

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