Susan V. Meyers
Suicide and circuses mix in “Failing the Trapeze,” the debut novel from Seattle University creative writing professor Susan V. Meyer. From the book’s devastating opening, the author quickly entwines several narratives across three generations and five decades, capturing the numerous small deprivations that can lead to larger acts of dysfunction.
The book begins with the fact of the suicide in 1979, but then dials back to 1926, when Dollie Mae is a star trapeze artist in a traveling circus, and her mother, sister, and daughter Maxine are all part of the act. But after an accident and a terrible fall, the act breaks up and other misfortunes befall the family as the Depression sets in.
Maxine loses both of her parents to tuberculosis when she is still quite young and she winds up in charge of her toddler brother, Ringling. So she marries a man who won’t get in her way, uses his signature to secure a loan, and opens a bar in rural California.
When her husband eventually does intrude on her set-up, their marriage ends in violence. A regular customer at Maxine’s bar, Gerald Williams, seems like the way out of hard times, so she marries again, and that union produces four sons and a daughter. They also bring another boy, Lawrence, into the family – although Maxine never treats him like a son.
Lawrence is the focus of another one of the narrative strands of this book, and so is daughter Theresa, who comes of age in the 1970s.
Lawrence tries his hand at different things – entering the seminary, teaching in Chile, reviving the family circus with Ringling, moving to Minnesota. But nothing seems to stick – he doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.
The author totally ignores reporting on the relationship between Lawrence and the Williams brothers – and this leaves a noticeable gap in the narrative.
Meanwhile, Theresa experiences loss after loss in her young life – her older brothers move on, her Uncle Ringling dies, her dad dies, her mother Maxine seems to lose her bearings.
And at the tender age of 15, Theresa is the one who discovers the suicide.
The author winds these frayed story threads around one another, and they snarl into perplexing configurations. There are bizarre scenes from the failing circus, graphic descriptions of illness, sexual episodes and physical and emotional violence.
There are also small moments of grace and compassion that occur in the face of overwhelming dysfunction – but these are scarcely enough to comprise a safety net.
“Failing the Trapeze” won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from the Southeast Missouri State University Press, which resulted in publication by that press. It should be noted that the copyediting for the novel is lax – there are some homophonous typographical errors, and outright misspellings – the most egregious being the identification of Alaska’s capital city as “Juno.”
All the same, Meyers still deserves a nod for her investigation into the corrosive power of family secrets. “Failing the Trapeze” is a bold debut.