|Jul/Aug 2008 Reviews & Interviews|
Harcourt. 2008. 263 pp.
In this fascinating journey simultaneously into the photographic forays of Diane Arbus, New York's fading sideshows, and the life of a rare book and ephemera collector, author Gregory Gibson has put together a unique work. Hubert's Freaks is partly about a mid-twentieth century freakshow known as Hubert's—a place managed by an African American performer named Charlie Lucas and featuring a host of colorful and well-traveled characters. It is also about how Arbus came to know Charlie and the Hubert's performers and photographed them at work and at play, eventually becoming a friend to Charlie and his wife, another performer at the show. Arbus apparently gave the Lucases several photos, which they saved for decades. In time, circumstance found them in an abandoned storage space, the contents of which were bid on and purchased by a man who frequented such sales. He in turn sold the Hubert's haul as a rare collection of African American sideshow ephemera—which it was—to Bob Langmuir. Langmuir, a rare book dealer, recognized the photos as possibly the work of Arbus and it is his story—the story of finding the photos, authenticating them and moving into a position to sell them—that is Gibson's primary focus. But getting to that point required a lot of history about so much more (even the guy who bought the stuff originally) and the author doesn't slight a single secondary character in this book; he goes for the whole story and remarkably, he pulls it off.
The Arbus connection is what sets the whole adventure in motion, both for Langmuir and the reader. But the more you read of Hubert's Freaks the less it becomes about Arbus and the more Charlie's life and the lives of everyone else involved take center stage. Gibson has done a lot of research into the old New York City sideshow scene and the vivid picture he paints of visiting Hubert's in all its fading glory is quite intriguing. He makes Charlie and his wife Virginia extremely compelling figures and the toughness they possessed to hold fast to their independence is both inspiring and sad. There is an attempt at the end of the book to broaden their lives into the larger context of American social history but Charlie and Virginia seemed like such individuals to me that making them representative of some segment of American society in general just doesn't ring true. I doubt there has been anyone else like them, and it is likely some of that acute originality which attracted Arbus in the first place.
Surprisingly, finding the photographs is not the end of this story—or even its most exciting point. Gibson devotes a great deal of the text to Langmuir's personal trials and travails which are just as compelling as those of the Lucases and Arbus, whose suicide is poignantly remembered. With such larger-than-life characters to explore, it is refreshing how Gibson makes the dealer just as significant; how Langmuir's friendships and marriage, followed by a long drawn out and nearly soul destroying divorce, all fold into the larger story of what to do with the photos. The historic and contemporary stories are of equal interest to readers and Gibson gives each its due, following Langmuir as he travels the necessary byzantine path to get the Arbus Estate to confirm the photos in preparation for eventual sale. Nothing is easy for Langmuir in this journey—at one point he suffers a nervous breakdown—but he hangs in there, determined to give Charlie and Diane their due. His personal affection for the two of them is oddly affecting and its sincerity comes through. In the end, Langmuir does not seem to know if he can bear to part with the photos as it would mean separating Arbus from the larger Lucas collection. They belong together, he thinks; they belong somehow to each other.
In the book's final pages, Gibson reports that an auction was to be held in April for the finally authenticated photographs but reports have surfaced that the original bidder on the warehouse sale is now suing for ownership. While I can understand his frustration at losing what appears to be incredibly valuable merchandise, it seems inappropriate to try to claim a reward for something he didn't know he had—nor took the time to research on his own. Langmuir spent years looking in dusty boxes and yard sales for treasure and because he was so careful, he didn't have to be lucky. In bringing every disparate element of this story together, Gibson shows how hard work can bring a reward in the end. I hope he prevails; on the evidence of Hubert's Freaks he certainly seems to deserve it.