Tumbling Turner Sisters Portrays Vaudeville's Declining Years

Juliette Fay
Gallery Books, 326 pages

In the days before mass media, vaudeville was one of the closest things the United States had to popular culture.  From the 1870s through the 1920s every town and overgrown village had some venue that at least doubled as a vaudeville house, and quite a few had elaborate “opera” houses devoted to vaudeville. (The term Opera was loosely used in the 19th century.) In The Tumbling Turner Sisters, novelist Juliette Fay captures vaudeville at its lowest level: those backwoods venues, third-tier cities, and small towns where those harboring dreams of someday playing the Palace in New York or catching on with the Keith-Albee circuit cut their teeth.

For those who might not know, think of vaudeville as a PG-13 variety act.  It was a veritable potpourri: singers, dancers, sword swallowers, ventriloquists, comedians, mimes, plate twirlers, animal handlers, acrobats, and tumblers. One could show a little bit of skin and make mildly suggestive jokes, but acts had to be suitable for “ladies” and children, or the performers were welcome to ply their trade lower down the entertainment totem pole (strip shows, fairgrounds, or R-rated burlesque). Fay sets her tale in 1919–the year before Prohibition took effect–and follows the Turner family of Johnson City, New York. When the paterfamilias injures his hand and can no longer stitch shoes, his wife, Ethel, decides to whip her four daughters into a vaudeville tumbling act in order to make rent money and put mashed turnips on the table.

Ethel is the classic stage mother willing to bend her daughters to her will, their aspirations be damned. Ethel is one part flirty coquette, one part Mother Hen, and one part Minnie Marx. She certainly faces long odds, starting with the fact that her offspring’s “tumbling” had previously been confined to the occasional handstand or cartwheel. Plus, each daughter has her own burdens and dreams. Kit, the youngest, is just thirteen and must pass for sixteen, or she can’t perform; 18-year-old Gert is prone to being pigheaded and salty; 19-year-old Winnie is cerebral and hopes to go to college; and older daughter Nell is a still-lactating mother and recent widow.

Fay takes us to small-town New York and beyond–vaudeville in places where a date in Elmira would be like a trip to Paris. Hers is a circuit of four-a-day performances, cheap (and unsecure) hotels, and drug store sandwiches for sustenance. You’ll meet quite a cast of characters along the way: two kindly Jewish comics who help the Turners learn how things work, a cigar-chewing agent more cutout for being a bail bondsman, a brother/sister Italian-American act, a helpful but odd English acrobat (who was later Cary Grant!), and a brilliant African-American tap dancer for whom Gert has a dangerous attraction. And that’s not the only lurking danger; the circuit is filled with con men, smooth talkers, thieves, egotists, and fellow vaudevillians more cutthroat than helpful. If only most of the acts were as good on stage as they were at off-stage petty bickering and catty behavior. Fay chose 1919 for a reason other than the alcohol angle; vaudeville’s doom is about to take-off: movies. Can the Turners overcome the stacked deck against them? Forget rags-to-riches, can they even pay the bloody rent? Read and find out.

Caution: Fay is a much better storyteller than prose stylist. Some of the latter is downright leaden, so read this novel for what you will find out about vaudeville. Take some of the book’s ethnic convergences with a grain of salt–there is also a bit of ahistorical PC acceptance oozing from the literary pores. Vaudeville memoirs are filled with tales of camaraderie and barrier pushing, but these seldom spilled out of the hall into the hotels or homes.  The Tumbling Turners is a fast read and there’s plenty to entertain, so think of the book’s unevenness as analogous to a night of vaudeville, which was deliberately structured to hide the weakest acts.

Rob Weir


Kate Lynne Logan: March Album of the Month


If you twisted my arm, I’d admit that Echoes is an unusual choice for my album of the month, but it’s hard to resist a voice as gorgeous as that of Seattle-based Kate Lynne Logan. Echoes is an album of quiet power from a singer who instantly puts one in mind of both Patty Griffin and Ruth Moody (Wailin’ Jennys). The opening track*, “Whiskey Sea,” sets the tone. It’s a song about the calm after the storm within a tempestuous relationship: Silent in the upstairs/dark in the rooms/long neck bottles on the floor/rain on the roof/I know I shouldn’t stay inside another night/but I’ve got you on my mind.  Ms. Logan sings it with piano accompaniment and a complete lack of pretense, and when you’ve got a voice like hers, why drown it in studio production or diva diversions? “River and theRain” is equally vulnerable” and it too is deliberately paced. Ditto the remaining eight tracks. So if you told me that every track on the album is down tempo and that Echoes could use some changes of pace, I’d agree. Sort of.

I’d admonish, however, to listen for the subtle distinctions—the lonely fiddle in “Afterlife,” the slides and elides in “Embers,” the sweetness of “Calling on Angels,” and the contrasting desperation embedded in a line such as: I can’t stand here watching everything around me die from “Echoes.” “Walkin’ in theWorld” reminds me of a non-trad material from Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, with the added twist of the contrasting interplay between dark guitar cadences and brighter keyboard notes. The album’s nine tracks are a combination of reworked material from earlier Logan projects, plus new material. She has shared stages with Shawn Colvin and Brandi Carlile, company you don’t keep unless you have the voice worthy of the billing. She’s also fronted a pop-rock band (Back Bar Angel), so instead of calling this a down-tempo album, let’s say that Logan decided to strip away some glitter and keep things simple. Label this one a small gem—a beautiful mix of folk and alt.country that’s nighttime music for grownups.

Rob Weir

  * This is the first track on the download edition. Oddly, it's the last track on the CD.


McEwan's Magical Prose Can't Rescue Insipid Contrivance of Nutshell

By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape Publishers, 208 pp.
 * * 

Savor this passage, from whence the title of Ian McEwan’s latest novel is derived. In the midst of musing on confined spaces in art and science, McEwan writes:

To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things. And when this universe may well be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes.

Savor this because it’s mighty fine prose from a celebrated British author (Atonement, Comfort of Strangers, etc.) who has won the Man Booker Prize once, has been nominated five other times, and has shelves full of other awards. But savor it also because the style is the best thing about his latest novel. Although it’s a retelling of Hamlet, somewhere along the line, McEwan forgot to write a story worthy of his eloquence. His is a one-trick pony laden with adornments designed to make a plow horse appear a show stallion.

The novel’s device—and it’s a clunky one—is to change the point of view of that most conventional of plots: a love triad. Hamlet works because of its sumptuous setting of the royal court of Denmark and because the principals–Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude—are characters of depth and complexity. And let’s not forget a cast of intriguing supporting characters: Polonius, Horatio, Ophelia, and a ghost! McEwan’s setting is suburban London, a decidedly non-regal place, and his principals are far more shallow: John Cairncross, a crusty though respected poet; his wife, Trudy, who is full in the tummy, but vacant in the head; and John’s solipsistic brother, Claude, who has been successful in real estate, but is a clod who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, especially family fealty. Claude and Trudy are lovers, despite the fact that she is carrying John’s soon-to-born child.

Here’s where the nutshell comes into play—our narrator for the coming Hamlet-like perfidy and sanguinary treachery is Trudy’s unborn child (the future Prince Hamlet?). That’s unique, I suppose, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s also pure contrivance—and a thin, implausible one that leads to logical inconsistencies that not even McEwan can write his way out of. I think he banked on the hope that readers would suspend disbelief once they got used to the idea of a talking fetus. This leads him to try to have things both ways. At times the unborn child is blissfully innocent and ignorant. In other moments, our little nutshell is displaced from his placental sac and expounds upon people’s appearances, classical music, the coital thrust of his uncle’s penis just inches from his head, and politics. What do we make of this musing on the United States?

…barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every handgun.

This is so insightful I’d declare the speaker “Tocqueville for Modern Times,” were those reflections from any character other than a fetus! McEwan wants us to think that our not-yet-a-person is capable on such wisdom. Also that he can detect the thinness of the Pouilly-Fumé his mother has just consumed, or that he can plot his own role in the unfolding drama.

If you know Hamlet, you can probably predict how this ends. A cliché holds that there is no such thing as a perfect murder and literary convention thrives on the fatal overlooked detail. Fair enough, but shouldn’t these standards apply equally to literary devices and logic? Let’s be brutally honest. If you were teaching a writing class and a first-year student outlined a story with an omniscient fetus, wouldn’t you urge the student to dispense with such a sophomoric, hackneyed setup? Why should we lower those standards for a writer as gifted as McEwan? From where I sit, my cracking of Nutshell yielded rancid meat.

Rob Weir