The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles G. Finney

Edward Hoagland

Just as, in a menagerie, some people will pause to marvel before the cage of an exotic creature from another hemisphere while others haul their children past, scarcely permitting them a glimpse, so, at the circus, some of us gasp at the trapezists' and the tumblers' feats, and other paying customers move restlessly in their seats and check their fingernails. In a circus we see mostly what we are ready to see. There is no script but chance and hope and spontaneity, and thus it is appropriate that this masterpiece of circus literature describes an imaginary circus, not a real one. No circus ought to be too "real."

Dr. Lao's stupendous show, which arrives abruptly in the Depression town of Abalone, Arizona, one hot August morning, introduces us to a hermaphrodite sphinx, a 2,300-year-old satyr, a lion-lizard-eagle dragon, and a gentle green hound, "less carnal than a tiger lily," with chlorophyll in its veins and a plait of ferns for a tail. Also, an angry sea serpent eighty feet long, whose one soft spot is for the circus mermaid; an ancient, intellectual magician who can bring men back from the dead; and a beautiful medusa who, with a glance, kills them.

Dr. Lao, the Chinese proprietor, travels with only three wagons and no roustabouts. Yet his numerous tents, black and glossy, stand about like darkened hard-boiled eggs on end. For such miraculous transformations he is indebted to his indispensable thaumaturge, Apollonius, who walks about "drowned in thought." Dr. Lao himself is energetic, impulsive, irascible, and resourceful—an impresario who, according to the emergencies of the moment, switches from the language of a poet-professor to the stock-comedy dialect of a Chinese laundryman "washing the smells out of shirttails," as two college boys, Slick Bromiezchski and Paul Conrad Gordon, put it to him.

The good doctor does have his troubles. The men in the crowd complain because the werewolf has turned into a woman three hundred years old, not the hot young dish they claim they were promised. A scientist who has examined his fearsome, enigmatic, phlegmatic medusa only wanted to identify the several species of snakes that constitute her hair (for which separate diets must be gathered). Circuses carry "a taint of evil or hysteria," Dr. Lao admits with regret. "Life sings a song of sex. Sex is the scream of life....Breed, breed, breed....Tumescence and ejaculation." One cause of his friend Apollonius's melancholy exhaustion is that things on the circus lot are forever getting out of hand—between the sea serpent and the dragon; between Satan and the witches who appear in the finale, some of them airsick from their flight to perform; between the bear (or is it a "Russian"?) and the mermaid it carries around the hippodrome; and between the satyr and Miss Agnes Birdsong, a high school English teacher who has come early in order to see the "Pan" that she observed driving a wagon during the opening parade through town.

Charles G. Finney, our cheerful author, was only thirty in 1935, when his Circus was published, so that his reactions are not the same as those of Apollonius, or even the "old-like, wealthy-looking party in golf pants" who represents Abalone's solidest citizens. At the time, Mr. Finney, a great-grandson of a famous Congregational divine who founded Oberlin College, was the veteran of a Missouri country boyhood, a year at the University of Missouri, and three years of garrison duty with Company E, Fifteenth U.S. Infantry Division, in Tientsin, China. An autodidact and intellectual rebel, he counted as his favorite twentieth-century writers Conrad, Kipling, Joyce, Proust, and Anatole France (but included no Americans). He had started the manuscript there in the army barracks in the American compound, writing in longhand, then laid it aside till he got home, because it had turned too lecturey. Later, he dedicated the book to a soldier buddy in Tientsin, with whom he never crossed paths again.

Mr. Finney's sympathy for humdrum people and ordinary lives had a short fuse. Perhaps partly as a result, his book ran out of steam after ninety pages or so. When the delight and spontaneity begin to wane, we know the performance is almost over—not because of some inner novelistic logic but because, just as at a circus, the acts that he has brought to town have now all appeared, and it is simply over. In fact, the book's shortness probably explains why it is not better known, compared to bulkier underground classics, and why it needs reviving.

Wonders were what interested Finney—"real honest-to-goodness freaks that had been born of hysterical brains rather than diseased wombs," "the sports, the offthrows of the lust of the spheres," foaled from the earth, suggests the good doctor, the way the Surinam toad bears its offspring, through the skin of its back. Dr. Lao's perpetual, exasperated dither, the lassitude and the boredom of Apollonius, and the pell-mell terror of much of the show are the price of having a performance at all—which, for reasons unstated, of course must go on.