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Horror And Slapstick In A Brutal, Timeless Parable

Author Will Elliott published the <em>The Pilo Family Circus</em> in Australia in 2006.
Author Will Elliott published the The Pilo Family Circus in Australia in 2006.

Fans have waited more than 20 years for another book from the great Katherine Dunn, whose amazing Geek Love centers on a family of circus freaks and sets the standard for the literary Big Top novel. She's still working and won't be rushed, but she does have a recommendation. In her glowing introduction to Australian writer Will Elliott's gripping debut, The Pilo Family Circus, Dunn offers comparisons to Kafka, Chandler, Swift, Orwell, King and The Three Stooges. The blend may be hard to conceptualize, but Elliott's story of a young man unwillingly inducted into a lethal clown act mixes horror, satire and slapstick into a brutal but timeless parable.

Jamie, a timid everyman with an arts degree who works as a concierge at a Brisbane gentleman's club and has arranged his bedroom with an eye toward impressing a cocktail waitress he's never had the nerve to ask out, nearly runs into a psychotic clown with his car after getting off a shift one night. Soon his apartment is trashed, his roommate Steve is vomiting blood, the clown and his buddies are constantly dropping in to make threats, and both Jamie and Steve are told they must pass an audition — by making the clowns laugh — within 48 hours, or die.

Motivated to comedic heights by dint of sheer terror, our hero passes and finds himself in a circus populated by hideous freaks, homicidal clowns, graceful but equally homicidal acrobats, a deadly fortuneteller and a couple of bosses — also killers, one of whom is an amateur theologian troubled by the fact that Satan has to serve as God's policeman. Jamie is forced to don magic face paint, which transforms him into JJ, the most brutal clown of all. "'Nicer the man, meaner the clown,'" one of the veteran clowns observes.

The force of the story is almost entirely psychological. The Pilo Family Circus invites the reader to consider where anyone, when pressured — and given the power — to do great evil would draw lines. At night, when JJ takes off his face paint, Jamie weeps as he remembers everything his darker twin has done. Luckily, he is paid for his work in strange white powder that helps him forget, for a time. Still, the incompatibility between the two selves continues to mount. In the circus, as in life, it is not clear until the end which side of his character will prevail.

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Maud Newton
Maud Newton is a writer, editor and blogger. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Newsday and other publications. She is a recipient of the City College of New York's Irwin and Alice Stark Short Fiction Award.