Circus + the Skin by Keith McCleary
Kraken Press, December 2018
251 pages / Amazon
A brief caveat: I know Keith McCleary*. We are friends and former MFA classmates, so I may lack the correct critical distance for a proper book review. So, instead of telling you how many stars this book deserves or anything like that, I’m using this review as an occasion to think with and about McCleary’s novel, to hopefully provide readers with a sense of why they might be interested in picking up a copy and, if they already have, to provide some possible ways to think about it.
Circus+the Skin is a carnivalesque grotesque. It’s a fractured piece of bloodied circus freak Americana, told in the voice of an accidentally poetic narrator who speaks like a kind of frontier autodidact.
It is also very damp. It’s gummed up with floods and insects, bodily fluids, watery foods. It’s language that compels and repels in the service of a story that does the same, a mysterious account of outcasts surfing the aftershocks of violent horrors that are only partially seen and can never be satisfactorily resolved.
If that’s interesting to you, you will probably really like Keith McCleary’s book. Of course, if you really like Keith McCleary’s book, he will probably be suspicious of you, as he is suspicious of his own work, of his and your (and my) attraction to the toxic masculinity and anti-heroic tropes present in this work. That is to say, there is a pleasure to be had from reading this book, a thrill in it that is inseparable from an embedded kernel of guilt. The reader is gifted a gnawing feeling that taking this pleasure implicates them too, perversely, in the rank rot that is the book’s milieu. Or something like that.
Maybe this is the nature of all freak shows — the sweat and straw-dust grime that sticks a little too wetly on your face and fingers. Maybe this is exactly what to expect in a story of meatmen and snake ladies, of loose lions and simple twins and financiers.
The book, however, is more than just gross wet fun. It’s also a story about weirdo community, outsider cliques, the hangover of trauma and the way hurt people take on, literally and figuratively, new identities. The book’s circus is a place whose characters have adopted new names and bodies and histories.
The tension explored is in large part found between newly becoming-selves and the persistent hold of lives that can’t quite be outrun. The tattooed man at the novel’s heart is either in flight from himself or to become himself. His ink anchors him to moments in his past even as he marks himself to cover over the self he was.
It is this real and emotionally resonant struggle, as much as the intrigue and regretted sex and disfigurations, that propels the book forward. It is this philosophical subtext, as well as McCleary’s deft development of a unique narrative voice, that kept me engaged throughout my read. What I mean to say is that I have two real reasons to recommend this book: great weird language and a troubled investigation of lives in the shadow of guilt.
I should say a bit more about that language. Sentences like “They looked up as we came in hauling naked simpletons” and “Near the horizon the haze ate the world” make perfect sense in the narrative, but they also have rough and inviting lyricism when stripped of context. Take that second sentence and notice how the letters of horizon practically split up and reassemble into haze and world. The first sentence plays with near-rhymes (came in and simpletons) and a lovely rhythmic pacing while conjuring a striking and disturbing imagery. McCleary’s work is littered with such small gems, and his satisfying sound-play works as a constant counterbalance to the book’s flirtation with pulpy themes and subject matter.
Not long ago I watched a documentary about the history of circuses in America. The documentary claimed that circuses were originally viewed with suspicion. Ordinary Americans, many swept up by religious fervor in the wake of the Great Awakening, worried that traveling circuses were filled with folks of loose morals and dangerous tendencies. To overcome such resistance, many circuses adopted large menageries of exotic animals in order to prove that their shows were actually educational affairs — that they were traveling museums with freak show annexes.
Circus + the Skin similarly walks the line between the suspect and the edifying.
It walks a lot of lines, actually, a tightrope artist straddling the worlds of genre and literary fiction, of comic pulp and sophisticated psychological portrait, of redemptive and cautionary tales, of pop and experiment. Like its characters, the novel refuses to settle neatly into its own identity. This makes it difficult to pin-down, a tricky object to fix with any definitive critical assessment.
That fact, of course, is a point in its favor. In this way the novel mirrors its narrator — a man who is not really a hero or an anti-hero but some kind of ambiguous third type — an a-hero?
This brings me to my final observation. As I write this, one of the most hyped movies of the year is entering theaters. Like Circus + the Skin, it is the tale of a beaten down white man who turns to painted skin and entertainment as a way to forge a desired identity. Like Circus + the Skin, it traffics in anti-heroic tropes, disturbing violence, and a psychological exploration of anti-social drives.
And yet the narrator of Circus + the Skin is not the Joker. McCleary’s novel is not a terrorist bildungsroman in which we are to pretend that manipulating pathos is the same thing as depicting moral ambiguity. We are not taught to identify with violent white resentment, but rather asked to recoil at the ease with which such identification occurs. At its best, Circus + the Skin presents a much more terrifying study of a man whose surface and interior (and past and present, and reality, and paranoia) have become vertiginously intertwined.
In the end, I realize, what is most fascinating about Circus + the Skin is that it is neither moralistic nor amoral, nor even a work that plays in the space between those poles. It seems to be something a bit stranger than that; it seems to be post-moralist.
What I mean by that, perhaps, is that the book takes place largely in the aftermath of unforgivable ethical lapse, a situation in which there is no hope or fantasy of making right and yet no total abandonment of ethics either. Maybe that isn’t exactly what I mean though; in any case I like the phrase. Post-moralist feels true, or true enough, even if (like the book it describes) it never quite reveals the entirety of what it means.
*Editor’s Note: Keith McCleary is the Comics Curator for Entropy.