This book was recommended to me over a year ago by Stephanie Stauder, friend and owner of Anthology Book Co. (www.anthologybookcompany.com). I finally got around to reading it this past weekend. Yes, I did manage to read it in its entirety on Sunday afternoon.
The main character, Jacob Jankowski, is male. I point this out because I always find it interesting when a main character is the opposite gender of the author. Personally, I feel it would be difficult to write a male main character and have never attempted to do it in any of my short stories.
The book is written in a first-person narrative by Jacob who is 91, 92 or 93, he can’t remember. He is confined to a nursing home with brittle bones and children who seem to have forgotten about his existence. His wife has long since passed away. One of the best lines of the book occurs in the first chapter on page 13.
“I used to think I preferred getting old to the alternative, but now I’m not sure. Sometimes the monotony of bingo and sing-alongs and ancient dusty people parked in the hallway in wheelchairs makes me long for death. Particularly when I remember that I’m one of the ancient dusty people, filed away away like some worthless tchotchke.”
Jacob spends his days reminiscing about his life as a young man working as a vet for a traveling train circus in 1931. The chapters flip back and forth between 1931 and his current state. The chapters involving the nursing home are funny as well as heart-wrenching. I think Gruen’s best and most insightful writing occurs in these chapters.
The idea of writing a novel around a traveling train circus is unique and appealing. However, this doesn’t mean Gruen’s book is lacking in cliches; Jacob’s parents die in a tragic accident (this is typical of many main characters throughout fiction) – there is a love triangle – the bad guys are really bad. The story has all the ingredients of main stream fiction and/or a great screen play. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is made into a movie.
Because the setting is based mostly on a 1931 traveling train circus, Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, to be exact, the book is full of odd characters. The main character, however, is actually a bit of a bore. I never figured out why Marlena (his love interests) falls in love with him, other than the fact that he represents a “way out” of her current predicament. Note: I’m not giving anything away here, you know they’re going to fall in love – it’s a novel after all! Jacob is neither funny nor clever. As an old man he was much more endearing, but in the chapters where he is 23, I find him dull.
Many of the supporting characters keep the book entertaining; Kinko, the dwarf clown, Camel the drunk, and Barbara the back tent stripper/prostitute. While reading the book I continually wished to be introduced to some of the other performers mentioned, including the tattooed man, the bearded lady or the fat lady, but we were only introduced to a select few, which was a disappointment.
My favorite characters were the animals, including Bobo the chimp and Rosie the Polish-speaking elephant. Where the human characters seem to lack depth, the animals personalities come alive.
Overall the book is a very easy read and not very long. Despite the pitfalls, it is a fun story that will appeal to many readers, including both men and women, young and old. Gruen conducted diligent research on the history of circuses and the reader gets an insider look at circus life in the 1930’s. The reader will also come away with insight on growing old. Perhaps after reading Water for Elephants, you may look at the old man on the street a little differently. Everyone has a story, and the best stories are usually old and dusty.