New York, NY: Ig Publishing, 2012. 200 pages. $15.95.
Christopher Narozny’s tantalizing debut novel, a literary thriller surrounding the intrigue of 1920s vaudevillians, is told from the perspective of four men connected by talent, ambition, and a grisly murder in a lawless New Mexico town. Among the principal characters are a young performer on the rise—known as Jonson’s boy—and a seasoned juggler named Swain whose career floundered after one of his hands was chopped off in a devastating act of retribution. Jonson’s boy and Swain are connected by their spots on a travelling show, their status as current and former child prodigies, and a drug trafficking operation that has infiltrated the circuit. Swain slips more each day, injecting the dope he smuggles cross-country into “a nub of bone in [his] stump,” diluting the product each time he uses in the hopes no one will notice his theft. It’s clear Swain is headed for rock bottom, if he’s not already there.
Jonson’s boy, on the other hand, still has a chance to meet his potential. He performs non-stop, more comfortable walking on his hands atop a high-wire than he is strolling a city avenue in wingtips amid a crowd. He constantly practices his act: “He stub-toe walks forward, leaps into a handstand, palms gripping the lip of the boards, then pushes off, somersaulting backwards, landing flush atop a mailbox.” The boy is bound for greatness. He’s also surrounded by a cast of ruthless adults unable to fulfill their own promise. Greed and ambition draw this breed of men to a boy who is as gullible and trusting as he is talented. Whether or not the boy can overcome their cloying influence is less certain.
Jonah Man is a feat of dialect and voice that makes the antiquated fresh. Narozny’s linguistic tableau is as fluid as the high-wire acts he depicts, giving us what feels and sounds like an insider’s look at vaudeville’s dark side. The author claims Cormac McCarthy and Paul Bowles as influences and it’s clear that his work is stirred by the lore and biography surrounding the circuit days of entertainers like W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers. We’re told in Jonah Man that carnival performing is the oldest profession in the world. “There were jugglers on the streets of Jericho and in the Forum at Rome, in the stalls of Aztec and Assyrian marketplaces, in the courts of European monarchs and Arabian caliphs . . . the juggler has always been with us, and always will be.” As Swain, Jonson, and his boy travel along a vaudeville circuit, from urban centers like Chicago to rural Nebraska and the desolate western plains, the reader is immersed in gritty vernacular and vitalizing anecdotes. There’s a medicine show, whorehouse ragtime, a “dime museum” called Oddities of All Nations. All of it is dazzling and dangerous, strangely peculiar and familiar. Narozny’s anecdotes offer nuance and movement to what sometimes threatens to become a too-darkly interior and psychologically narrow novel.
What ties the narration together is the calamity meted out when ambition stretches too far. Jonah Man is a novel about the things performers did to keep in the show. Performers who suffer on crummy vaudeville circuits, hoping for some talent scout from the Big Apple to be in the audience so they won’t have to smuggle dope, or play a tinny brothel piano, or get bamboozled by grifters, or have a hand cut off to boost the novelty of his act. The only certainly is that those with talent are the easiest to take advantage of because of their desire to be great. Jonah Man is engaging historical fiction, gritty urban realism—and a page-turner that doesn’t disappoint.