McCracken's Older Novel Relives a Faded Era

By Elizabeth McCracken
Dial Press, 320 pages

Why review such an older novel? First of all, Elizabeth McCracken is a very fine writer (Giant, Thunderstruck). But the main reason is that there's been a small burst of new enthusiasm for books about vaudeville lately and that's the subject of McCracken's work. Like other works, both fictional and historical—The Little Shadow, The Tumbling TurnerSisters, The Comedians, Four of the Three Musketeers, The Queen of Vaudeville, various Sophie Tucker biographies—McCracken takes us inside an increasingly forgotten era, a time in which entertainment was less airbrushed than it is today. Vaudeville was a place where dreams came true or died hard and it staged performances ranging from stupendous to stupid. Variety exhibitions such as TV's Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) were the last remnants of an entertainment form that dominated from the 1880s through the 1920s and immersed live audiences large and small in everything from song and dance to plate twirling, slapstick, and the sort of things you'd expect at a carnival sideshow. 

McCracken's novel tells of the long partnership between the pencil thin Mike (Moses) Sharp and hefty Rocky Carter that began when Rocky dumped his longtime straight man and saw something in the novice Sharp, a Jewish lad from Iowa who hit the boards to pursue his fantasy, exorcise a beloved sister's ghost, and avoid taking over his father's menswear business. McCracken begins her tale at a time in which vaudeville is already threatened by a new diversion, motion pictures, and it takes us through the decades as the duo transitions to movies, does some television, and ultimately joins the ranks of the famous long ago. McCracken clearly modeled their comedy act on Laurel and Hardy, but with the body types reversed: skinny Mike is the commonsense, constantly flummoxed "Professor" and rotund Rocky goes for the laughs. In many ways it's an unorthodox love affair between the two—not physical love, but the sort of deep connections whose severance comes fraught with deep pain and touches of tragedy and cruelty.

It's about more than that but the Mike/Rocky relationship is the start and end points of ancillary story arcs. Mose/Mike grew up with six sisters, but it was Hattie, two years older than he, who forced the issue by insisting they'd be an act when they grew up. She died young, but another reason Mike left Iowa was to escape from a household filled with sisters who annoyed him in one way or another. He can't understand why Rocky pushes him to reconnect with his family or wishes to ingratiate himself into it—especially when both of them were young, virile, and good with the ladies. One of the book's touching explorations is how their respective stage masks ultimately match their public personae—with Mike ultimately yearning for stability and convention and Rocky stuck as a lifelong mammothrept who can only flirt with the things Mike lived/lives.
McCracken reveals details about vaudeville—the title references the peripatetic lives of stage performers—but because she's such a wonderful writer the biggest reveals are about life when the lights dims. Themes include straight men* and comics in the bigger world, stability versus chaos, and Iowa commonsense versus the lure of excitement.  It's an older book, to be sure, and not one of McCracken's master works, but a fine winter's read.

Rob Weir   

* For younger readers, the term "straight man" has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It was/is a common comedy duo strategy in which a level-headed actor (straight man) is paired with one prone to recklessly getting both into funny but perilous situations from which they must extricate themselves.  Or, alternatively, the sensible straight man  stands in comic contrast to the jokester/buffoon. 

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