The Greatest Show, by former UM journalism professor Michael Downs, is a collection of interconnected fictional stories set around the real life 1944 Hartford Circus Fire that killed and wounded hundreds of people. Mostly though, this is a story about marriage, children, grief, hope and disappointment. I was concerned there'd be a lot of burnt tigers and children screaming, but it's worse than that. Beware of, instead, the ordinary horrors of losing a parent, never having children, divorce, getting old.
The book consists of 10 short pieces, but it might be more accurate to call these stories chapters in two intertwining novels. The first concerns Ania and her husband Charlie, who emigrated from Poland to Connecticut. They have a son named Teddy. When he's three years old, Ania steals circus tickets from her employer. While there, they are burned up but survive. There is a graphic description of the circus fire in this first chapter, but we're spared after that, because "Ania" isn't a story about a circus fire; it's about a lukewarm marriage. "She had hoped for more, for something electric with mystery, yet now she felt nothing but Charlie's skin and, maybe, some gratitude for his weight in the bed, and then a growing unease that all nights would be like this night, that she would forever feel nothing more than skin and gratitude." To me, that's scarier than a burning tent.
Of the 10 stories in the collection, seven of them are tethered to Ania, her husband and her son. "Mrs. Liszak" features Ania as a strange old woman in the 1970s, but the story belongs more to a messed-up teenage orphan with no connection to the fire at all. In "At the Beach," Ania's son Teddy meets his second wife and marries her. "The biologist watched him kiss her and thought: That's what it's like to have loved for years." The biologist is mistaken; this is their first kiss, but at least in this story we get a glimpse of what we all want marriage to be for everyone all of the time.
These stories are true and, more importantly, never tired or boring. The themes are familiar, but the action goes to unexpected places. Good stories reveal secrets in plain site. The Greatest Show knows parents love children far more than children love their parents: "She had never felt any such thing before, not even love for her own mother. That awareness saddened her, because what was true for her was likely true for Teddy." It knows marriage isn't just one thing: "She smelled the piney scent of his cologne and was angered by his constancy and glad for it." And it knows that grief hurts: "Not for the first time that day, he wished that he and Sophie could talk about Sophie's death."
The second, smaller chain of stories deals with the aforementioned Sophie, though we never meet her directly. Her story is about her ex-husband, her ex-husband's sister, her brother Nick and Nick's children. My favorite story in the collection is "Son of Captain America," about Nick's son Franco and his sometimes friend and neighbor Dominic, who are children in the 1970s and then grow up to be frightening teenagers. It has the scope of an Alice Munro story, with the viciousness of Raymond Carver. At the start, a dog is dead and Dominic's father has killed it, probably. The boys do terrible things together. I felt angry with them, and I worried. In one moment, Dominic has "abrupt knowledge of what he's just inherited." "Son of Captain America" is about the ways we are like our parents and the ways we are different.
These stories are strange, sad and beautiful. They fit together and at the same time are disjointed as well as just about any other linked collection I can think of. They're made out of ideas that are familiar and, because they're familiar, deserve to be explored and ruminated on. I think I was expecting a kind of survey of the Hartford Circus Fire tragedy. With 10 chapters, I emotionally prepared for 10 charred bodies. Instead, we're given up-close just two families that spread out and multiply. But 165 people died in the fire. It's unsettling and exhausting to think of all the stories that went unwritten.