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By Cathy Day.
274 pp. Harcourt. $23.


. First Chapters: 'The Circus in Winter' (July 18, 2004)



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'The Circus in Winter': The Ring Cycle


Published: July 18, 2004

SOME subjects are almost too colorful for literary fiction. The circus is one of them. Life under the Big Top, with its superabundance of flash, tawdriness and exoticism, offers a more opulent vein of raw material than may be good for most writers, luring them into the trap of an all-too-easy poignancy. Granted, a few shrewd souls (like Katherine Dunn in her 1989 novel, ''Geek Love'') manage to sidestep the cheap pathos and obvious ironies, but too many others take the bait with the eagerness of a midway mark, giving us variations on certain trite and less-than-urgent truths -- that the dog-faced boy has feelings too, that sometimes clowns are sad.


Fortunately, Cathy Day is no such rube. In ''The Circus in Winter,'' her new collection of interrelated short stories, she succeeds in appropriating much of the garish pungency of the world of freaks, geeks and sideshow Houdinis without succumbing to its ready banalities. Although once or twice she treads close to cliche -- must the revelations of two-bit fortunetellers in fiction always turn out to be true? -- most of the time she steers clear of tired expectations. This is one circus act that doesn't rely on dependable gimmicks to keep the audience amused.

Day's 11 stories encompass a century's worth of life in the small town of Lima, Ind., the winter quarters of the Great Porter Circus. Half the stories focus on the doings of various performers during the circus's heyday from 1900 to 1939. In one, a creepily manipulative acrobat discovers she can contort her personality as easily as she does her body. Another traces the effects on the circus community of a calamitous flood, delivering in the process some of the book's most arresting imagery: ''That night, the animals screamed. Lions and tigers were roaring to be let out of their cages. The elephants blew their high-pitched cry through their trunks. Over the pounding of the rain, I heard water lapping against the house, as if we were on a boat going down the Congo River, and in the jungle on either side of us animals were clawing each other's backs in the darkness.''

But the strongest stories describe events that occur long after the Porter circus has gone belly up, when many of the former show people attempt to pull off the high-wire act of normal domestic life. Here the opportunities for broad absurdity must have been almost irresistible -- one can easily imagine, say, the bearded lady becoming a high school principal, or the trapeze artists opening a nail salon -- but Day wisely resists the temptation. Life in latter-day Lima ultimately proves very much like that in any other small Midwestern town in the second half of the 20th century.

At the heart of the book are several stories about the descendants of Hans Hofstadter, an animal trainer killed by his elephant. Read together, they illuminate the corrosive effects of a multigenerational culture clash -- between the narrow pragmatists and the hungry dreamers, between those preoccupied with home and habit and those with their eyes on the horizon, always looking for something different. ''When I was little,'' the last of the tribe explains at one point, ''my mother told me there are basically two kinds of people in the world: town people and circus people. The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people.''

This dichotomy is explored most tellingly in ''The Bullhook,'' which tells the story of Ollie Hofstadter, a clown who becomes the local dry cleaner. Caught between a frigid, doggedly conventional wife (a town person) and an elusive, irresponsible daughter (a circus person), Ollie can't quite decide which camp he belongs to. And though he lives to be 100, he never reconciles with his wife or forgives himself for failing to recognize the unhappiness of his wayward daughter.

''The Bullhook'' is a sad story. In fact, given Ollie's former profession, you might even call it a sad-clown story. Who'd have thought anyone could make that old chestnut work?

Gary Krist is the author of the novels ''Extravagance'' and ''Chaos Theory.''

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