The Trapeze Artist
307 pages • Bloomsbury • May 10, 2012 [PB]
‘You think it is so easy as you just run away and join the circus? One of those people who think that all it takes is for you to one day decide “Oh, I shall learn a few tricks today” and then the next day – ha! – you can be a great aerialist … it’s not so fucking easy!’
Ever since childhood I’ve always loathed circuses and fairgrounds and found clowns downright creepy. But I always made an exception for aerialists, those gymnasts of the air. In my youth we seemed to have a lot of circuses on TV, especially at Christmas, and they provided a rare opportunity for watching half-naked, well-oiled men strut their stuff. (Nowadays, with the East End graced with 50 foot high images of Tom Daley in micro-speedos at every turn in readiness for the Olympics, this seems incredibly quaint, and rather akin to an Edwardian gentleman catching a titillatory glimpse of ankle!)
Of course, we’ve all heard those stories of children running away to join the circus but Will Davis’ endearing and thought-provoking The Trapeze Artist has a forty year-old man doing so, and apparently finding love in the arms of a male Transylvanian (well, Romanian actually) trapeze artist ten years his junior.
Out of this unlikely scenario, and bordering on magic realism (shades of Angela Carter’s 1984 Nights at the Circus perhaps?), Davis weaves an intriguing and entrancing tale of physical and emotional pain, struggle, loss and redemptive love.
We never find out the name of the leading character but, gradually, through Davis’ short, inter-cutting sections, switching rapidly between lonely, bullied adolescence, to an early-middle age still tied to his mother’s apron-strings, through to eventual (literally soaring) liberation, we piece together the jigsaw of his troubled life.
His miserable, isolated schooldays as a fourteen year-old growing up gay in a hostile environment, are suddenly transformed by the arrival of a new boy, Edward: dashing, cool, arrogant and impertinent. Eventually, the two team up and Edward reveals that he is also gay, though the contrast between the main character’s conformist, lower-middle class upbringing and Edward’s bohemian arty one (his father a successful novelist and his mother a painter) could scarcely be greater.
There is also another gay boy, Paul, who tags along with them, much to Edward’s amusement and the leading character’s chagrin, but there is little doubt that Edward and he are lovers and Paul merely a rather pathetic hanger-on. The petty jealousies of a ‘threesome’ inevitably come into play and Edward manipulates these rather cleverly, and to his own advantage, although it eventually backfires in spectacular and tragic fashion, colouring the rest of the leading character’s life.
Aged forty, and still living at home with his now-widowed mother, he has become, like his mother, a care-worker for the elderly. Suffering from what can only be described as a mid-life crisis (although he himself characterises it as a nervous breakdown) he leaves home and joins a circus. Or, rather, he joins the trapeze artists and travels with the circus, whether they want him or not – which they make emphatically clear they do not.
His love for Vlad, it finally becomes clear, is very much a one-sided affair and the leading character once again finds himself alone in a hostile world. He returns home to find that, in his unexplained absence, his mother has suffered several strokes and is now a resident, rather than a worker, in a care home.
On her death, he tears the guts out of the suburban family home he has inherited from her (much to the horror of the elderly neighbours) in order to erect a full-height trapeze rig, upon which he tortures his body night and day with exercises and drills until he is ready to perform in public as an aerialist in his own right.
In his moment of bleakest despair, when Vlad has rejected him, he finds sympathy from Jethro, the clown who has always appeared to hate him, and also from Paul, who reappears having made a new gay life for himself in London.
This novel moves by turns from the bleak and alienating to the humorous and life-affirming, with its message that, through all life’s adversities, struggle can overcome and bring its own rewards. In the case of the leading character the ultimate reward is triumphant, if short-lived, but then, one might say (and I take Davis to imply) that’s life – take it and leave it. It is not a rehearsal. And, as an aerialist himself, he should know.