Work Title: A Cabinet of Wonders
Work Author(s): Renee Dodd
312 pages, Hardcover $24.95
Reviewer: Peyton Moss
In our entertainment-surfeited era, with everything from cables to satellite signals flooding our homes with hundreds of television channels, thousands of movies, and millions upon millions of Internet sites, we rarely remember or appreciate how truly thrilling it once was when the circus---or its less sophisticated, seedier sibling the carnival---came to town. In rural areas where a sandlot baseball game could make headlines and a square dance qualified as a major social event, the arrival of acrobats and animal acts, carousels, cocoanut shies, and hootchie-kooch dancers was exciting indeed---and of all the attractions, the most exotic were surely the human oddities gathered into what was known as a freak show, a sideshow, or as in this new novel, A Cabinet of Wonders.
Dugan, the dwarf impresario who presides over the premier box-office draw of the Starlight Carnival Royale, is paterfamilias of a unique "family" that includes among others) a fur-covered Wolf Girl with a gambling habit; a spirited pair of Siamese twins teetering on the edge of womanhood; a troubled, runaway preacher's son whose entire body is tattooed with Biblical images; and a hermaphrodite of pansexual appeal and extraordinary emotional sensitivity. Unfolding from spring to autumn of 1927 and wending its way from Alabama to West Virginia, the book chronicles the adventures---and increasing fragmentation---of Dugan's troupe as it confronts changes that deftly combine the singular problems of "unnatural" individuals and the universal challenges faced by everyone everywhere.
Defying the carnie stereotype, which typically ranges from shady cynicism at best to the murderous despair of Tod Browning's notorious 1932 film Freaks and Fellini's La Strada, the author presents a gallery of amazingly self-aware and articulate protagonists set against a well-researched and vividly drawn backdrop. Part period piece and part fable, her book summons up Paper Moon's roguish charm, unsettling flashes of Flannery O'Connor, and a sort of Southern magical realism that grows more pronounced as the story progresses. For instance, after being deflowered in a sad, wham-bam seduction at once bizarre and predictable, the Siamese twins ultimately find happiness in Hollywood with a rich, devoted suitor).
Improbable as it may sound, however, this peculiar...