Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

The Circus in Winter: Fiction
Cathy Day
Harcourt (2004) 274 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin


Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and other esteemed publications have been positive, even glowing, in their advance reviews of this new collection of related stories. But by the very nature of their professional duties, the reviewers of such periodicals have to be somewhat measured in their praise.

I don't: I have just read the debut of the greatest American fiction writer of her generation.

This single volume has restored my fast-flagging faith in American fiction, the publishing industry, and to some degree academia. To some degree, The Circus in Winter has restored by faith in the cultural value of writing; of myself; of... what am I really saying? Of Life. This is why we read—or rather this is why I read, and many of you, too. The only way to describe my excitement is to ask you to picture yourself walking into a church and suddenly having some tangible proof that God is really there, after all.

For me, this book is that good. It is a validation of what I've worked for all these years, and it's why after all these years I continue to write, to publish, and, above all, to review books: for the hope that one day I'd somehow run across one like Circus. And now I have. So if it took my reading review copies of ten or fifteen books that should never have been published, and another ten that are competent but forgettable, hey—it was worth it. So I guess I'll keep going, now.

Cathy Day is one of the most vivid and affecting writers in the nation, and I'll have none of the usual reviewer crap about how "This is a voice to look out for" or whatever, it's this voice I just read and heard, and it's getting it done now—right here. This book succeeds at every level: the emotive, the technical (narrative, dialogue) the degree of originality and vision, the imaginary objective renderings. It is the past flowing into the future; the dead brought into life.



The Circus in Winter has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, which is ironic in that much of the time period its eleven linked stories encompass are concerned with the period in which Sherwood Anderson wrote his book about semi-fictional characters in a Midwestern town. These books really defy categorization—"fiction" seems best, and this is the word below the title of the present volume. While some of the eleven can easily be read independently, the book is deliberately designed for a cumulative effect—hence the phrase "Display No. __" before each story, and the circus metaphor supports the form. That's pretty inspired—with, say, musical metaphors, or really even purely "theatrical" ones, this device can often seem contrived, but not here. Or perhaps "inspired" is the wrong word—there's a point where the circus metaphor, "conceit," whatever, ceases to be a metaphor at all, and becomes the reality here.

Yet the circus in its off-season, in its demise... this is where the execution comes in, and the brilliance. It doesn't end with some cliché of "circus people" as sometimes-happy family and often drunken sad-faced clowns—and it doesn't even start there. That is understood. In fact, The Circus in Winter is not really about some metaphor or other (though there are plenty there if you need ‘em), it's about stories, which are about characters, and what they say and how they say it and what they think and feel. Metaphor for us all, we're all hiding behind an act, we're all circus people? Sure, a lot of us are, and some of us are pretty much just what we seem, too, so with all that out of the way (all I expected when I first got the book—Tod Browning meets Raymond Carver or something) the Show Begins.



I do not have a "favorite" display, and that's a good thing, I think, because there's at least one or two in here for anyone who can make it, and probably one or two that just aren't for you. However, the three or so that just "weren't for me" in no way diminish the work—I've considered this a great deal—and those are the very Displays most poignant to many others! Are the Displays all perfect, and seamless? No, and Thank God for the Most Part, too, because if you're a writer, and you're trying to do that Four Quartets crap in prose, well here's your M.F.A., honey, and I hope it was good for you, too. But with Circus I think more of Sgt. Pepper's, Blind Willie McTell, Tom Waits, and George M. Cohen. And a tune in my head recorded in 1903 by Bert Williams called "The Phrenologist's Coon," and Lottie Collins, and the songs recorded by Alan Lomax, who's actually mentioned in the book during a quite aptly placed Historical Display called "The Jungle Goolah Boy" that you may think to be simply a clever borrowed-text segue... at first. The adverb's the key here. But how simple is something Displayed just right in such a place that you continue thinking about it, that star-crossed honeymoon on Sapelo Island, the entire African Diaspora?

Is it a uniquely American thing to feel an intense nostalgia for times in which we never lived? Or is it just that... oh, man. That's too Quantum for me (actually it's not but this is supposed to be a Review) and maybe, to get at the Truth, the thing to do is just Tell the Story.

And that is exactly what Cathy Day proceeds to do, from the book's shimmering opening, "Wallace Porter," into the stunning "Jennie Dixianna," the book's "single," as it were. And really (because how long can one really remain "objective"?), that's about when my jaw dropped. I really had to stop reading. Just like I did when I finished Display No. 5, "Winnesaw," the first of only two times Day uses first-person, and her historical imagination there is so keen and sharp it is just scary, it is... the finest story written in first-person that I have ever read. And I've read a few. A few good ones, too.

That being the case, I rather expected something less as the Show went On and its narrative began to depict events closer to Cathy Day's (and my) lifetime. There's one passage—maybe two passages, in different stories, where the events turn out differently—in which the author seems to describe her own conception, at the end or in the middle of a story about life as it unfolds for other people and concerning their narratives that when she goes on in the final two Displays (the lights of the rings are out, only the spot in on, center) to do similar things, but more subtly, it's like a Rossini crescendo played backwards, very fast, and maybe there are two types of people in the world, Circus People and those who aren't, and if you're not good for you but if you are, you may very well find aspects of this book a lot less "funny" (as some have had it) and a lot more "personal" than those who aren't Circus People but who recognize good writing.

There's more I need to add, isn't there. How this is a book describing the lives of four generations of families in Lima (pronounced like the bean) Indiana. How Cathy Day was born in Peru. Indiana. I'm sure other reviews will help you out with some of the rest of this.



All right, this is a cliché too: Have you ever felt like you, somehow, just didn't belong in this world? I, Kevin McGowin, have felt like I didn't even belong in the effing circus. In the past year I've done... this, and I've been through... that, and what it is doesn't matter, really, because I came away from this book feeling like it had been written to me. Man! That's what I've waited all these years to read, and if you, too, are Circus People you will almost certainly, to varying degrees, feel likewise.

And yet the sleight-of-hand is astounding in itself. I come away from the first two pages of all these books I read and review or don't review and think I Have their Number, it's like, I see you've been reading DeLillo, haven't you or it's Oh, it's the New Narrative Maybe-I'm-Ironic Memoir again and usually, it's something I'd rather not write in this review.

Which is, as you've seen, less a true "review" than an appreciation. Because with Circus in Winter, though I've never met its author, my first reaction was I'm proud of you, as if Cathy Day were someone who knew me well, and had captured my life, our life, and my son's, and that of the wife and family I don't have anymore because I wanted to be a…because I ran off to Join the Circus.

And you—you're what, eighteen, eighty? It's strange, I know—but you may feel the exact same way. Heather and I, we were twenty-two, three, we were pushing forty, we had this joke: What's the Meaning of Life? Answer: To Find Something Worth Reading.

Well, dear—wherever you are—here's a place to start.


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