Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
Published by Algonquin Books
335 pages, 2006
The Big Flop
Reviewed by David Abrams
Does anyone still dream of running away with the circus? Is there a young boy somewhere fed up with the unreasonable demands of school, parents and adolescent society who longs to leave all that behind for the sawdust and sequins of the three-ring extravaganza?
Perhaps a better question would be, is there still a circus to run away to?
Yes, I know that, technically-speaking, circuses still exist. You see them every now and then pulling into town with a caravan of semi-trucks, setting up Somewhat-Big Tops in the parking lot of your neighborhood Wal-Mart, parading around a few moth-eaten camels and elephants while trying to sell you a six-dollar bag of cotton candy (a bag, fer cryin' out loud!). If you're lucky, you might get a "Hungarian sword swallower" (who actually hails from Teaneck, N.J.) and your kids will go home happy that they've actually seen a living, breathing clown.
But you can bet there will be some grandparents who grumble in the car all the way home, "You call that a circus? Feh! They don't make them like they used to, I tell ya!"
Indeed, the Golden Age of Circuses is now just a dusty footnote in our social history. Soon, there will be nobody who remembers the menageries which traveled across the nation by train, unloading at small towns with the hoopla reserved for presidents and movie stars, parading through the streets with elephants, lions, trapeze artists, clowns, fat ladies, bearded ladies, midgets and Siamese twins. Gone are the ringmasters with top hats and booming operatic voices who beckoned, in Pied Piper fashion, young and old to come see the show at the outskirts of town.
Those days may be gone, but you can still get a taste of what they were like in the pages of Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants.
Set in 1931, the story envelopes us in the world of a second-rate traveling circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, as it travels from town to town, setting up its tents with muscular speed and precision, then pulling up stakes almost before the last note of the calliope's finale has faded.
In a sense, we join the circus along with the main character, 23-year-old Jacob Jankowski, who is just about to graduate from Cornell's veterinary program when he learns that his parents have been killed in an auto accident. The devastated Jacob hops a train and discovers he's landed in the lap of the freaks and geeks of the Benzini Brothers.
The circus' owner, Uncle Al, hires him on as the show's vet and Jacob soon finds himself tending to giraffes and chimps while learning about the strict hierarchy of circus society (lines are sharply drawn between performers and workers and ne'er the twain shall meet) and the distinct vernacular of circus folk (a "First of May" is a greenhorn like Jacob; to "redlight" someone is to toss them off a moving train, a fate which happens to several washed-up circus performers).
Jacob also finds himself falling in love with Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, who is married to the temperamental August, the show's animal trainer. Gruen uses the love triangle as the novel's fulcrum and throws in a fourth character, Rosie the elephant ("an enormous beast the color of storm clouds"), who will eventually play an important role in the outcome of the affair between Jacob and Marlena. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Rosie's behavior stretches credibility, though in an author's note at the end Gruen cites historical precedents for the denouement.
Silly climax notwithstanding, Water for Elephants is riddled with other problems which distract the reader from an otherwise atmospheric story about a slice of vanished Americana. Characters and dialogue come at us in clumsily-handled scenes which often feel like they've been lifted from movie clichés. If you've ever seen The Greatest Show on Earth, Disney's Toby Tyler or an episode of HBO's Carnivale, you'll recognize some of the stale sawdust littering the pages.
Not all of the glop is confined to the bottom of the animal cages. Here, for instance, is a post-coital scene that turns characters' moans into readers' groans:
Afterward, she lies nestled against me, her hair tickling my face. I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin.
It's a shame that Water for Elephants is chained to cliché because there is a genuinely fascinating world painted on the backdrop of these pages. Gruen's research is impeccable and her enthusiasm for the Golden Age of Circuses is palpable. Unfortunately, once we're inside the Big Top, the rest of the show is a letdown. | September 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.