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Big Top Dreaming

What ever happened to running away with the circus? In Bonnie and Arthur Geisert’s Prairie Town, this looks like a pretty excellent option, because if it turns out the life of a sideshow freak is not for you, then at least you will probably be passing this way again. The circus rolls through town every year, after all, and for many living inside this scenic American tribute to frontier self-sufficiency, here is conceivably the only glimpse of a universe beyond, where the years are not tallied in harvests and snowstorms, and babies and puppies and businesses getting born, and who said what about whom at the corner grocery. It must be awfully tempting.

Yet the circus ends up representing a very different sort of salvation when the alternative is getting tossed in a dump, and called fat in the back of a dog catcher’s truck. Here is where we spend a hopefully not-too-grouchy minute wondering how it is that the handicap of ugliness is not these days more readily addressed in picture books than shyness, say, or newness, or clumsiness – conditions, in short, from which you are likely to recover with a couple of lucky bounces and waves of communal understanding. I know everyone’s beautiful in their own way, but there is nevertheless a surprising consensus about who should be occupying our magazine covers and musical consciousness and schoolyard affections. Let’s face it – the sooner the better, it says here – so that future generations should not be burdened with deconstructing the cosmic significance of Ryan Reynolds.

Anyway. The circus. In John Burningham’s oddly but poetically under-appreciated Cannonball Simp, a fat black dog “with only a stump for a tail” suffers many an indignity (snubbed by rats and fellow strays, then assailed by a ferocious alley cat who has been chasing me through my dreams for forty years) before stumbling upon a cheerfully lighted circus encampment in the middle of the night, where a clown sits apparently brooding over his dim career prospects. What happens when you’ve probably chucked it all to join the circus, and then the circus chucks you? Go back to a life in finance? No wonder he looks so depressed.

Turns out the clown’s act – of shooting a cannonball through a paper hoop – needs urgently updating, but I’ll leave you to wonder over the long-term advisability of Simp’s elaboration, and whether the hazards are finally worth the applause. She does make a lot of cool new friends, however, and gets to eat cake under a glorious John Burningham sky. When the world as you know it scarcely values your participation, you either get some new talents or you find another world, and there’s a little bit of both of those here. Some people are slower to their reinventions than others, some are too busy surviving to probably even notice, and for some it is surely the blinder acts of faith which are the final reinventions of them all. 

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