THE GREATEST SHOW
By Michael Downs
LSU Press, $23
Ania married Kasimierz in their native Poland, and migrated to Hartford, Conn., before the Second World War. Kasimierz became “Charlie” as he Americanized, and held two jobs. Ania worked cleaning houses and gave birth to Teddy. The young family scraped by, and then, the year after Pearl Harbor, Charlie enlisted and went off to Europe.
Ania did not miss him, dutiful and loving though he was. She spied her generous employer, Mrs. Patterson, sobbing ferociously as her own husband prepared for deployment, “her fists clenching bunches of his starched uniform,” at which point Ania realized, if she had not known before, that her marriage was not marked by passion.
Something intangible in Ania’s makeup made her endearing, just as something about little Teddy commanded attention. The charitable Mrs. Patterson felt embarrassed at her oversight, rather than disturbed, when she realized that hardworking Ania had stolen from her two tickets to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, so that Teddy could see something delightful.
This turned out to be the 1944 fire that killed hundreds of those who had crowded into the giant tent. “Flames crept from the blackness like sluggish lightning,” yet Ania and Teddy were spared — insofar as they escaped with severe, visible burns that would scar them both for a lifetime.
So opens The Greatest Show, the newest from LSU’s Yellow Shoe imprint. In a series of interrelated short stories, author Michael Downs weaves in and out of the lives of residents of Hartford, from World War II to our time.
We see Ania make her peace with Charlie, and become a fearless, feisty older woman, eager for adventure, who blissfully gets into a car with teenagers she’s never met and joins them at a post-pubescent beer fest.
Teddy grows up, moves away, yet cannot banish the past he scarcely recalls, though it marks his body; eventually, he returns to Hartford as the last living survivor of the circus catastrophe, and finds a strange satisfaction in becoming the “show” in a show-and-tell event at a high school.
Intervening chapters bring out an Italian neighborhood in Hartford, and more unusual (some slightly unhinged) characters, alternately dreamy and agitated, who grapple with the world as it is and ought to be.
Downs likes to dig into memory: what “forgotten” feels like when it exists emotionally but not outwardly or what “remembered” feels like as the ever-evolving present reshapes the thought of past experience.
His prose is easy and quietly sensual. He is a romantic naturalist, if such a thing exists, a writer who refuses to turn away from human suffering and refuses to dismiss the potential of human healing.
Andrew Burstein is Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.