“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
— Elmore Leonard
The Aerialist, by Richard Schmitt (Sewanee Writers’ Series/Overlook Press, 2000)
Richard Schmitt’s darkly funny debut novel, The Aerialist, is as much about everyday life as it is a behind-the-scenes stare at the dark, strange world of the circus.
Among a glut of others, Schmitt gives us the “twenty-four-hour man” — whose job it is to travel ahead of the circus to post arrows pointing the way to the big top. Then there are the bullhands, who shovel elephant dung — a nasty job at best, and could you go much lower in the way of career moves? We also see the butchers, who sell plastic ray guns and cotton candy, plus assorted clowns and trapeze artists and lion tamers. More importantly, Schmitt shows us the humans inside these characters — not to mention the towns they frequent and the trouble they meet. We quickly realize that, as always, the mirror has two faces — and it’s the writer’s job to expose the one we don’t see.
Enter protagonist Gary Ruden and his friend Dave (the former has recently talked the latter into joining the circus with him). In one early scene, the two are wandering the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, a town just across the river from Brownsville, Texas, where the circus is playing.
Muses Gary: “The attraction of border towns for us was available and affordable sex. The fleecing of sex-starved punks revolved around cabdrivers. We’d pile into a cab and be taken to a strip joint full of whores who would give the cabby a kickback. The women, various ages and shapes, bled us for drinks. When we’d spent our limit they’d take us into rooms to get the rest of our money. We were suckers and knew it, but they were cheap and we didn’t care. For some reason the oldest and fattest were attracted to me.”
The two graduate from bullhands to wardrobe duty, where Dave is fearful others will think he’s gay and so begins wearing cowboy boots and hanging out with “a tough guy named Cuts.”
This is Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer on speed: wild youth in the full bloom of lust — and wanderlust.
Each chapter is a told in storylike fashion, revealing more characters with names like Pie Car Bill and Backdoor Jack.
Notes one wise passage: “A vital quality of a daredevil act is the appearance that the performer is doomed.” Indeed, isn’t perception and deception about all there is to life?
Eventually, Gary becomes an aerialist, learning slowly under the tutelage of those around him. He finds he has a knack for walking wire; what’s more, he likes it.
“Performing is no job,” reveals our protagonist. “If it’s not a religion it’s an exercise in faithlessness, and a wirewalker without faith is a dead man.”
But my favorite chapters — written in italics and third-person narrative — afford arresting glimpses into the secondary characters’ lives. In one case, the mauling of one performer by a beloved lion ends in the death of two people. Here, the language turns into poetry.
Still, there are, perhaps, a few too many interesting people painted on these pages. Early in my career, an editor gave me a sound piece of advice. She warned that an overdose of colorful characters tends to weaken the plot, causing them all to lose color. But certain scenes in this book are so strongly written that a whole flood of characters couldn’t dilute them.
Essentially, this is not a book about a young man who runs off to join the circus. It’s a book about a person who runs off to join life — something more of us might consider sometime.
Richard Schmitt attended Warren Wilson College and has published short stories in Mississippi Review, The Marlboro Review, Flyway and Puerto del Sol. One of his stories, “Leaving Venice, Florida” was anthologized in New Stories from the South. The author lives with his family in Horseshoe, N.C.
The Writer’s Life
The Black Mountain Center for the Arts launched its new writing program in early January. Among the classes now being offered are: “How to Write the Romance Novel,” “Creative Writing,” “Turning Family History Into Historical Fiction,” and “Creative Non-Fiction.” Instructors are Jill Jones, Bill Brooks, Charles Price and Marie Maher. For more info, call (828) 669-0930.
Sunday, Jan. 14, West Asheville Library: Award-winning teacher/author Judy Goldman (The Slow Way Back) leads a workshop-style program, “Using Memories, Writing Fiction.” 3 p.m. 251-4990.
Sunday, Jan. 14, Malaprop’s: Daniel Pierce discusses his new book, The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park. 3 p.m. 254-6734.
Tuesday, Jan. 16, City Lights Bookstore, Sylva: Each Tuesday night, Peony Press and Linda Young will sponsor authors from Western North Carolina to speak on and teach various literary-related topics. 7:30-9:30 p.m. (828) 586-4579
Friday, Jan. 19, Malaprop’s: Max and Rosie Beebe, owners of Cafe Max & Rosie’s on Lexington Avenue, will discuss their new book, Vegetarian Cooking with Health and Spirit. 7 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 20, City Lights Bookstore (Sylva): Carrie Holthouser reads from and signs copies of her Civil War novel, War Horses. 2 p.m. (828) 586-9499.
Sunday, Jan. 21, Malaprop’s: A new monthly series, “Writers at Home” — hosted by author and UNCA instructor Tommy Hays — features readings by Peggy Parris and Cyn Chadwick. 3 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 28, Malaprop’s: Local author Sallie Bissell reads from her debut novel, In the Forest of Harm. 3 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 2, Malaprop’s: Da Chen reads from his memoir, Colors of the Mountain. 7 p.m.
[Bill Brooks teaches the Blue Ridge Writers Program at A-B Tech. He is the author of 10 novels.]