Personal Best: The Circus of Dr. Lao

"The Circus of Dr. Lao" by Charles G. Finney

Published September 30, 1996 12:09PM (EDT)

i don't recall my hometown even having a bookstore. Books did occur, of course -- at Shaffer's News and the two drugstores, mainly. These were useless to me, except as shoplifting sites. I didn't have the disposable income for books.

My parents' reading was limited. My father read trade journals and news weeklies (he was an educator), and my mother mysteries. As far as I know, my father only read two novels in his life: "Lord of the Flies" and "From Here to Eternity." He consumed the latter in paperback and I remember his process with amazement; the spine had broken about halfway through his reading, and he would throw away chapters as he finished with them. When he'd finally tossed the final yellowed pages into the trash, he declared his opinion: "Prewitt just wouldn't conform. The idiot just wouldn't conform."

I haven't read the novel myself (saw the movie though!), but I suspect this is not the point James Jones was hammering. This experience taught me my most important lesson as a writer: readers will take what they take; there's only so much you can do. Be thankful if somebody reads your goddam thing. Let it go. Thanks Dad.

My sources for fiction were our public library and semi-annual charitable book sales, hosted by grim, blue-haired ladies who viewed my presence with suspicion. For a buck, a kid could pick up a dozen Shell Scott mysteries, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch collections, and still have enough left over for a couple of James Bonds.

It was at one such book sale that I first picked up "The Circus of Dr. Lao." I was twelve when I first read it. I no longer have my original (I lost it when we moved from that bleak little town), but in the years since, whenever I come across an edition, I buy it. (I have found three different editions of it over the years. For all I know, it may have always appeared only in second hand book stores.)

"The Circus of Dr. Lao" was made into a major motion picture in 1960. It was probably the viewing of this movie ("Seven Faces of Dr. Lao," Tony Randall and Barbara Eden; a George Pal picture, heavy on make-up and stop-motion animation) that provided the impulse for me to buy the book in the first place.

There was little resemblance between the movie and the book. Well, let me put that another way -- there was more resemblance than usual between the movie and the book, but the movie managed to subvert the book entirely. I'm sure the author was amused by that (if still alive), took the Hollywood money, and ran.

The movie is about a mysterious guy, Dr. Lao, who shows up at a bleak Arizona town and transforms its inhabitants with magic. The book, on the other hand, is about this mysterious guy, Dr. Lao, who shows up at a bleak Arizona town and doesn't change anything. The 1960 movie's monsters are glistening, state-of-the-art and all played by Tony Randall. The 1934 book's monsters are mangy, out-of-date, and slightly out of focus.

I have reread this book every few years or so since, and it still thrills me. I can't call it a good novel really (if you want a good novel, read "Pale Fire"), but it has a world-weary tone that appealed to me mightily when I was a pre-teen boy on the Dakota prairies. Why I still like it now is a question only therapy could answer.

Maybe it's the theme: people wouldn't know a miracle if it bit them on the behind. So what good are miracles? Did they save guys from getting "'dobe walled by Pancho Villa?" And what is a "miracle" in a skeptical yet superstitious world? Did miracles save the ancient gods and monsters from extinction? Who is Dr. Lao? Curator, pulp fiction "Chinaman," or the last of the gods? The relentlessly laconic author doesn't seem to care about these questions one way or another, beyond framing them.

His Circus features the original Apollonius (b/w Golden Ass), Satan, a satyr, Medusa and the Great God Yottle. The people of Abalone, Arizona, where The Circus has landed, are impatient, by and large, with these apparitions -- they only want a sideshow.

Even the clumsiness of the novel is endearing. The entire final section (a virgin sacrifice to a defunct god), for example, is written in an overwrought pulp style that might be parody, and might be heartfelt. Who knows?

It's even post-modern! It has lists, in other words, of pretty much everything contained in the novel. This index is labelled "THE CATALOGUE," which the author calls "An explanation of the obvious which must be read to be appreciated." A typical entry, in its entirety:

"THE DEAD MAN APOLLONIUS BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE: Arnold R. Todhunter. A homesteader. Later on, when a Tribune reporter interviewed him about the hours he spent in the arms of death, he testified he was just on the point of being issued a harp and a gown when Apollonius reclaimed his clay. He said Heaven reminded him more than anything else of an advertisement he had once read of Southern California.

It's certainly an interesting artifact. If you ever find a copy, I urge you to spend your nickel (seven bucks in today's dollars), and check it out. Finney has written other books ("Magician of Manchuria," e.g.), which I bought, but couldn't finish. You'll find Dr. Lao in the fantasy section, if you find him at all.

By Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales is a regular contributor to Salon.

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