Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 28, 2010

Was it a bear or a Russian or what?

The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney (1935), Bantam, 119 pp.

Happy as I am to hail from the same home town as Tony Randall, I warn you at all costs to avoid the film in which he plays Dr. Lao (at least one SciFi website agrees with me).

I so loved this book that, while in college, I adapted it for the stage, and a good friend offered to direct. It ran for two performances. Six months later, I received a letter from a publisher who wanted to see my adaptation, with the possibility of publishing it. In the end, they decided that producing the play would be prohibitively expensive, so they weren’t interested. My first rejection letter.

Two things fascinate me about this book. One is the odd character of Dr. Lao himself, switching between the worst parody of Chinese-influenced pidgin and perfect English throughout the book, sometimes within the same scene. He challenges everyone he meets to re-evaluate their assumptions about him and the world, and to distrust the evidence of their own senses.

The other thing is the subtle humor. The novel takes place in a small town in Arizona, near the Mexican border (Finney lived in Tucson after leaving the army, where he served in China). Cultures collide, as European meets Asian meets Latino. For instance, two men who have just struck up an acquaintance enter a bar. One orders “two cervezas,” and the other says, “Naw, naw, I just want beer.” Oh, the layers under that last line!

In another scene, Mr. Etaoin, the newspaper editor (printers will get the joke) displays the ultimate in egocentrism. He describes in great detail the life of a Duroc Jersey pig, from birth to slaughter, and ends with

Some months later I went into a restaurant and ordered pork chops. And the chops they served me–may I die this instant if I lie–were from that very pig of which I have been talking. And the moral of this story is that the whole, sole, one and only and entire purpose of that pig’s life, and the lives of its ancestors, and the lives of the things upon which pig and ancestors fed … the sole purpose of all that intermixed mass of threads and careers, I say–was to provide for me in that restaurant, at the moment I wanted them, a pair of savory pork chops.

Etaoin is talking to a caged sea-serpent in this scene, who has just described eating a few Polynesians. Their conversation reveals yearning for escape on both sides of the cage.

Appolonius of Tyana tells fortunes, Medusa petrifies a cynical woman, a satyr nearly seduces a staid English teacher, some unidentifiable beings appear here and there, and the Grand Finale should satisfy all with a tremendously realistic scene of annihilation. Something for everyone!

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