Friday, June 15, 2007

Water for Elephants, a review

I can't seem to stay away from circus books. I want to read one which captures the pain of the place, the fear and the beauty, but I'm always slightly disappointed when I read one.

They always seem to focus on the wrong thing: the show. The best analogy I can come up with is how San Franciscans experience the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is undeniably an international landmark for the Bay Area and San Francisco. However, unless you live in a very swank area of SF, you can't ever SEE the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. You sort of know it's there, and you can usually wave your arm in its general direction no matter where you are in The City for the benefit of lost tourists, but it almost belongs to the tourists and to the guys from Marin County more than it does to lots of San Franciscans.

If you turn your back on the water and look up, you'll find Sutro Tower, which rides the top of Twin Peaks. This Page explains it well.

For me, lots of circus books feel like the Golden Gate, when I'm looking to read about Sutro.

I've owned Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for a while, but was very nervous about reading it. Got lots of good reviews, which could mean that I'd hate it. Then there's the fact that it focuses on an elephant, which can also be a dangerous thing. (Too romantic, don't you know.)

Anyway, I put all my trepidations aside and finally cracked the cover yesterday. I finished it late last night. In tears, well, just sniffles, but still. (I'm such a watering pot sometimes.) Sara Gruen obviously did her research, and this novel completely captures my fascination with circuses, my horror of the cruelties there, and the longing I still have to just pack up everything and hitch a ride one more time.

The story centers on a 93 year-old man, Jacob, who is languishing in a nursing home, slowly losing his ability to walk, to feed himself, or to remember what day or year it is. He's angry at his body, he's lonely, and he's waiting to die. Just outside the nursing home, a circus tent starts going up, which causes the residents to become very excited by the prospect of going to the show. For Jacob, the tent brings back memories of when he was a young man in his twenties, during the Great Depression, when he ran off to join a train circus. No one at the nursing home knows of his secret life, and the novel alternates chapters between his experiences as an old man, and his memories of his vigorous and exciting youth.

Jacob jumped onto a train owned by not the greatest show on earth, but not the sleaziest either. It's a show run by Uncle Al, who skips around America by rail, trying to buy off parts of other shows which have gone bankrupt. If they can stick to their route, the advance man can build up anticipation for their arrival, there can be a nice circus parade, and then everyone can get paid. But every time Uncle Al goes on a buying spree, there are no ticket sales, sometimes the big top doesn't even go up, and everyone goes without pay. Well, except the performers. They always get paid. Which further separates them from the roustabouts in the circus hierarchy.

Jacob straddles both worlds in that he comes on as a veterinarian to the show. He has to scrape out train cars full of manure, and he has to slop the big cats their buckets of maggot infested meat, but he's not just a roustabout. He sleeps in a hidden compartment of a train car with a dwarf clown (a performer), and he eats with Marlena and Auguste in the performers' section of the cookhouse tent. Marlena is the equestrienne and Auguste, her husband, is in charge of all the animals on the show. Jacob is completely infatuated with Marlena, and she seems attracted to him as well.

Circuses don't travel by train much anymore, but Gruen completely nailed this part. There are abundant stories in the backlot of modern circuses about the ways in which the train circuses used to subdivide the cars, segregate the cars, and cram every last bit of material, animals, and manflesh into those cars. In Water for Elephants, there are doors, partitions, hidden trunks, people sleeping under bunk beds, rats in the horse blankets, rotten meat in buckets, rage, violence, sex, intrigue and people getting "redlighted" from the moving train. ("Redlighting" is when you toss someone off a moving train if you don't want them on the show anymore. It's a term I heard frequently from the performers on the show I worked. Somehow I thought it had to do with brake lights on a truck speeding down the highway as you sit by the side of the road. Guess it's older than that.)

Auguste is pure circus. Charming, intelligent, charismatic, and talented. And then when he's frustrated, just as violent and cruel as can be. He's tight with Uncle Al, who needs him on the show to look after, train, and perform with the animals. So what Auguste wants, Auguste gets. He felt just right until Gruen tried to explain his behavior by showing him flipping from one personality to another. Right after this, a character describes him as being a paranoid schizophrenic. I wonder if this explanation was a later editorial addition to explain his motivation. It seemed unnecessary; is it not possible for someone to simply be violent and dangerous and compelling without psychoanalyzing him?

At one stop Uncle Al buys Rosie, the only elephant in the circus, and a car for her to travel in. However, Rosie cannot perform. Jacob can see that she's intelligent by the way she entertains visitors to the menagerie, but she knows no commands and is essentially useless. Uncle Al has to make his money back, so he starts advertising her as a performer, and pressures Auguste to make up an act for her. Auguste goes about this in the only way he knows, by beating her into submission.

Jacob discovers more entanglements in the circus, like the roustabout who has been paralyzed by illegal liquor, due to be redlighted, so Jacob starts hiding him in his cramped quarters. He also discovers that Rosie is just as intelligent and talented as he thought, although she doesn't understand English commands. Along with his love for Marlena, it becomes more and more impossible for him to imagine leaving. Gruen develops suspense well. Can Jacob continue to hide paralyzed Camel from Uncle Al? Can he get Marlena out? What can he do about Rosie? When will Auguste discover their plot?

The secondary characters in the novel are elegantly drawn. The circus characters, who could have easily become caricatures, have a refreshing depth to their descriptions and motivations. And the nursing home staff and residents aren't simply cardboard either.

At the end of the novel, elderly Jacob awaits his family on Sunday, the last day of the circus show. He can visit, see the show, and reminisce about his great adventure. He finally has something to look forward too. There's a possibility of escape from the drudgery.

Because there's something just as cruel about circuses as there is poignant, Jacob's family forgets. They forget about him, and they forget about what was important to him. No one visits, they've made other plans, and he's left stranded in the lobby of the nursing home, hearing the music starting but being completely unable to get into the big top.

The ending of the novel, what Jacob does next, is perfect.

Part of separating yourself from normalcy, from taxes and mortgages and office jobs, when you hop on that train, is keeping the memory of that place within you as an escape. You can never go home again, but somehow you do. We all walk through our childhood kitchens in our minds eye. I can still see the blue carpet and the white metal cabinetry, although they were torn out thirty years ago or more. I still want to go back to my aunt's farm, my grandmother's house, not just to see the place again, but to stumble across the people who must surely be hiding there still.

This is the problem with circuses. When they come through town, you see the posters and the black paper arrows stapled to lamp posts directing the trucks to the lot in the middle of the night, a secret code that you can read from your minivan with the car seats and the school books, and just for an instant you think that maybe you can go back. It's a place. But is it a memory too? If you visit the place, can you walk back into your memory? Or does the memory grow with time, parallel to your experiences?

I think that Jacob may have gone back into the circus at the end of the book, or he may have stayed at the nursing home and imagined it all in his senility, or he may have died and gone to his own heaven where he is respected and valuable. Any one of those endings work, and somehow all three may have happened. I'm still not sure. But, like watching clowns juggle soap bubbles, it's unexpectedly beautiful.


Marg said...

I loved this book when I read it, and it was interesting getting your perspective on it, as a former performer!

Great review!

top voted San Antonio Maid Service site info said...

This is one of my new favorites. I read it twice, about a year apart and I enjoyed it as much the second time.