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[Book reviews]

Freaks and geeks
With a new novel coming out in August, Elizabeth McCracken still loves the world’s oddballs


His regular straight man turned up drunk is how it started. I was a young man backstage of the Minneapolis Pantages Theater in the second year of the country’s Great Depression and the third of my own. It was 1931 and I was a vaudevillian, though vaudeville was dying. I hardly noticed. Everything was dying: it was hard to figure out what would rise from the ashes, and what was sputtering out for good.

I’d been summoned to Minneapolis to sub for a Dutch comic with a bum appendix. When I arrived, the stage manager handed me a bright red wig that smelled like the tail of a golden retriever. I painted freckles on my face and went on in a borrowed checkered jacket. I looked demented, not Dutch, and told jokes in my usual mournful way.

Some audiences liked the deadpan delivery. Not this one. I could hear several hundred programs opening, several hundred fingers sliding down the bill to see who was next; I could feel the damp leavings of several hundred sighs of boredom, puffed up from the house one at a time to pop like bubbles on my cheek. So it wasn’t a surprise when I stepped off the stage and the manager handed me my publicity photos, which was how you got fired in vaudeville.

He was a parsnippy-looking guy, scraped and pale, but he wasn’t heartless. He saw the look on my face. " Listen, kid, " he said. " God never closes a door without opening a window. "

Great news if you’re a bird.

— from Niagara Falls All Over Again, by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken can’t type. At least not on the funky Italian keyboard she’s using while on a writing fellowship at the Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities in Italy. Unlike her lyrical novel The Giant’s House and short-story collection Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, her e-mails are sometimes muddled, sometimes incomplete, and often just plain direct.

" I’m having a hard time with the at symbol, " McCracken writes during our correspondence. Another time, I receive a message filled with upper- and lower-case letters and missing words. Somehow, though, the exchange seems perfectly suited to McCracken’s irreverence and love of eccentricity.

Oddball characters are a common theme in McCracken’s novels: The Giant’s House was a National Book Award–nominated romance between a quiet librarian and the tallest boy in the world. Niagara Falls All Over Again, her second novel (forthcoming in August from Dell), is the story of Mose Sharp, a " straight man " in an Abbott and Costello–like comedy team. Mose and his boisterous partner, Rocky, ride their way through a roller-coaster career in vaudeville, radio, buddy films, and ultimately (though somewhat sadly) television.

Q: Niagara Falls All Over Again is the story of a young man from Valley Junction, Iowa, whose life ambition is to perform in the spectacular vaudevillian shows he has seen and imitated with his older sister. What interested you about vaudeville?

A: Nearly everything. Variety in popular entertainment, for God’s sake! Horse acts and opera singers and historical figures and tap dancers, all in one night. These days, so much of popular culture is based on trying to duplicate something that’s already been done: all forces are fighting against variety.... I miss (without ever having known) all that eccentricity. Eccentricity is undervalued. Most people are terribly eccentric. Not nearly enough modern entertainment is.

Q: You capture the grand old vaudeville houses and wildly diverse acts that performed on these stages (I’m thinking of the one-legged, one-armed man who slithers up the rope). These scenes feel extremely vivid and detailed. What kind of research did you do? Were Mose and Rocky based on any real-life performers?

A: It would be disingenuous of me to deny that in many ways — chiefly a few biographical details and their movie careers — Carter and Sharp are based on Abbott and Costello, with whom I was obsessed as a child. I watched Abbott and Costello movies and TV shows, plus tons and tons of other stuff: silent comedians, comedies of the 1930s, ’50s, ’60s. I listened to hours and hours of old radio shows. I read bios, and back issues of Variety. I’m a non-practicing librarian, so research is a habit of mine, for good and ill. At some point, I have to recognize that I’m procrastinating. Especially this time, since so much of my research was pure entertainment. I also talked to a lot of people in Des Moines, to get a sense of early-20th-century life there.

Q: I found both Carter and Sharp’s stand-up act and the wild antics of Mose’s large family laugh-out-loud funny. How important is humor in your writing? Do you think there’s a difference between humor and slapstick?

A: I think that slapstick gets a bad rap. Buster Keaton is slapstick, and he’s art: beautifully done physical comedy can be like dance. People say " I don’t like slapstick, " when really what they mean is, " I can’t stand it when Moe hits Curly over the head with a lead pipe. " But great silent comedians are beautiful to watch, even when they’re smacking each other over the head.

How this translates to writing, I’m not sure. Writing something that’s simultaneously very moving and very funny — like a Buster Keaton movie — is always my aim. And I always fall short. The fact is, I hate this book. I’m sick of it. All I can see is how I’ve failed to do what I set out to do. In a year I’ll feel more kindly toward it, I’m sure.

Q: You’ve often been praised for the lyricism of your prose. How do you balance that with the needs of moving your story forward?

A: Ay ay ay (and you can quote me). Left to my own devices, I could write an entire novel of nothing but pretty, pretty sentences, apt metaphors, and one-liners. Scratch that: I could write 500 pages, but it wouldn’t be a novel. Not one I’d want to read, anyhow.

Last year, I went to the Cape for five weeks, and gave myself an assignment: I was going to write a novel in that time, one that took place over a few days and was very plot-driven. And I did it: a 220 page, plot-driven, very bad novel. It stinks; it’s unsalvageable. It suffers from a fatal lack of ambition. But I learned a great deal about plot in writing it.

Q: Both Niagara Falls and The Giant’s House have boisterous characters: Rocky is an often bull-headed man; librarian Peggy Cort does " not love mankind. " How did you make your characters sympathetic?

A: Well, I hope I manage. All I can say is I myself love crackpots, misanthropes, oddballs, and cranks. I have great sympathy with them.

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a freelance writer in Boston.

Issue Date: May 24-31, 2001