In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Michael Downs’The Greatest Show is an impressive short fiction collection debut. These ten interconnected stories about the horrific 1944 Hartford, Connecticut circus fire work well as standalone narratives, but taken as a whole can be read as a powerful novel.
Sabina Murray wrote of the book:
“Though each story stands alone in scope and power, the larger portrait of a community bound and propelled by fate–specifically, a catastrophic circus fire–is a stellar, magical achievement. The Greatest Show is a fantastically conceived, compelling book.”
To that great ringmaster in the sky, the God of the Big Top, I’d like to say, “Thank you for Mr. Curtis Eller–that banjo-picking, yodeling, punk-folk ex-circus juggler who sings about Tammany Hall and Joe Louis and John Wilkes Booth.” Without him, and in particular without his album, Wirewalkers and Assassins, I couldn’t have made a cohesive playlist. With him, I think it kind of works.
My book, The Greatest Show, links stories via my birthplace, Hartford, Connecticut, and its famous circus-tent fire, which consumed a Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey big top during a matinee performance on July 6, 1944, and killed 168 people. The stories mix clowns with flames and scars that don’t heal; points of view shift story by story, and ten stories happen over the course of six decades. I’m biased, and it took nearly a decade of work, but I think the stories add up to a unified whole. But a playlist to reflect all that? In a few weeks? I struggled.
Then I discovered Curtis Eller and his song “Hartford Circus Fire, 1944.” Off the same album, his “Plea from the Aerialist’s Wife” includes the haunting refrain “Won’t you deliver this old heart from the circus fire?” One turn through the tracks, and I was smitten. It seemed Curtis, without having ever read my book, had provided its soundtrack.
But first, a Big Band memory from 1941 …
“Jersey Bounce,” Benny Goodman, Benny Goodman’s Greatest Hits
In this story, readers meet a young Polish immigrant who takes her three-year-old boy, Teddy, to the circus on the day the fire will change thousands of lives. But in an earlier scene, we see her at work as a maid who comes upon her employers in a moment of love and anguish, and on the radio nearby plays Benny Goodman’s instrumental hit. “Jersey Bounce” establishes the book’s–and Hartford’s–pre-Pearl Harbor swagger, yet the keening trumpet at the end suggests grief to come.
Ex-Husband, Years Removed
“Hartford Circus Fire, 1944,” Curtis Eller’s American Circus, Wirewalkers and Assassins
At a show in Baltimore where I live, Curtis asked the crowd to choose the next song he’d play: “Beautiful or Angry? Angry or beautiful?” The crowd called for angry, and he played this nifty, sad waltz. “Hartford Circus Fire, 1944” fits this story about a man in mourning for a person with whom he is still angry, a beautiful ex-wife who died in the circus fire. “A panic swept through the big top,” Curtis sings, “Stars and Stripes Forever, and those screams / and no one in Hartford is sleeping easy / because the circus lives here in our dreams.”
Ellen at the End of Summer
“Three is a Magic Number,” Bob Dorough, The Best of Schoolhouse Rock
Ellen Patterson wants children, but her body only gives her miscarriage after miscarriage. On a summer day in 1947, she admits to her husband her impossible desire for a boy she babysits, Ania’s son, Teddy. In this story, he’s five-years-old and bearing a body criss-crossed with circus-fire scars. The story ends on that same picnic afternoon, several decades before “Three is a Magic Number” became part of children’s Saturday-cartoon mornings. But it’s a song that makes five-year-olds dance. And if childless Ellen listened, she might have felt a pang of hopelessness at the lines, “A man and a woman had a little baby / yes, they did / They had three in the family / that’s a magic number.”
Son of Captain America
“Firing Line” The Allman Brothers Band, Hittin’ the Note
Two neighborhood friends come of age in this story, testing limits, figuring out whether they’re heroes or villains, and learning that sometimes they’re both. With Derek Truck’s riffs setting the tone, I can hear the story’s main character, Franco, singing to nasty Dominic, “I’ve known you since you been born / raising hell even as a child / Nothing’s changed since that day / You’re still out running wild … Change you’re life’s direction / Get off the Firing Line.”
Added bonus: A crowd of elephants dominate the album’s cover art.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water
It’s 1980, and the star of this story is Ania’s working class neighbor. Suzanne Randall is a smart, artistic 16-year-old girl, whose mother has died and whose father in his grief has abandoned his family. She needs a bridge over her troubles, but has no idea how to build one, and those offered to her she burns. She’d relish the over-the-top melancholy of this song, listening to it over and over in the dark, feeling that “pain is all around” and fearing that she’s going to keep losing forever.
At the Beach
“So Nice,” Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo
Teddy re-appears decades later, except now he’s Ted, a guy in his early 40s on a beach vacation where he’s been set up by friends to meet Rosa, a thirty-something lawyer from North Carolina. It’s a story that conveys, I hope, the practicality and sexiness of love between grown-ups. You know. What Bebel sings about.
“When You Wish Upon a Star,” Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards), Disney’s Greatest
In the neighborhood bar where “Elephant” takes place, a fellow sits in a corner playing this tune on his recorder in exchange for coins. Meanwhile, a teenaged-Ted listens as his father tells him a story that begins, “I once shot a circus elephant. Through the eye.”
“September When it Comes,” Johnny Cash and Roseanne Cash, The Legend: Family and Friends
This story, like the song, is a duet, shifting between the points of view of an aging wife and husband. Nick, once a boxer but now stroke-addled, yearns for those days when he could destroy things. Confused though he sometimes is, Nick would understand, with the clarity of a left jab, the words sung by the Man in Black: “I cannot move the mountain now, / I can no longer run. / I cannot be who I was then. / In a way I never was.”
The Greatest Show
“Je Te Veux,” Eric Satie, performed by Pascal Roge, Three Gymnopédies & Other Piano Works
Rosa and Ted are now married, and to celebrate his 60th birthday, she buys him tickets to the circus. But for reasons of national calamity, the circus cancels its performance. After learning Ted’s circus history, a few performers agree to give him, at least, the semblance of a show. As they juggle and parade, a roustabout chooses music to accompany them that is “an awkward tune, one sad and off-balance, teetering, uncertain, played as if it resisted playing but had no choice.” The story doesn’t name the song, but between you and me, it’s Satie’s “Je Te Veux”.
“Plea of the Aerialists’s Wife,” Curtis Eller’s American Circus, Wirewalkers and Assassins
This story, about Ted and memory and forgetting, is the finale. So I’ll let Curtis end the show, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, by singing:
“Won’t you deliver this old heart / from the circus fire? / Don’t walk away and let it burn.”
Michael Downs and The Greatest Show links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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