The novel tells the story of Stan Carlisle who, after a disturbing youth, joins a cheap travelling carnival, and starts to make his way in that world. He becomes a mentalist, running a fixed game to get cash from vulnerable punters. Eventually, Carlisle becomes a full-blown spiritualist, holding rigged seances, looking for the big mark, and running roughshod over his wife/partner and his few lovers. Finally, morbidly alcoholic and cheated by his erstwhile partners, a penniless Stan returns to a low-life carnival, offered a job as the geek — the wild man who bites heads off chickens — a humiliating position that he has detested since the first pages of the novel.
Gresham writes the story in a stark modernist style and manages to bring us deep into the worlds of the travelling carnival and spiritualism in the first half of the last century. This is not the magical realism of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love“. Rather, this is a story of hard-scrabble life, poverty, drunkenness, and the vagaries of “love” in a world where everyone is a mark, everyone is a potential step out of the mud.
A tough and wonderful read.