What The New York Times Says About DEAD CIRCUS

New York Times review of the novel

SUNDAY NEW YOUR TIMES BOOK REVIEW                            

August 18, 2002, Sunday


Bad Vibrations

By Stephanie Zacharek

The Dead Circus

By John Kaye.

324 pp. New York:

Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.


THE Hollywood of the novelist John Kaye has a definite set of looks and sounds and smells, but mostly it has a shape — the shape of desolation. There are no ghosts, strictly speaking, in Kaye’s Hollywood. But loaded as it is with the vaporous presence of all those who have died, gone missing or simply taken off, the town has its own distinctive weight and heft. How much do a million secrets weigh? Enough that you wouldn’t want to carry even a handful of them on your shoulders.


Gene Burk, the central character of Kaye’s rich and mournfully resonant second novel, ”The Dead Circus,” carries more than his share. ”The Dead Circus” is something of an interlocking prequel and sequel to Kaye’s first novel, the potent, starkly detailed ”Stars Screaming” (1997), which told the story of Gene’s younger brother, Ray, a network censor struggling to break into screenwriting. Kaye knows his territory: he has worked in Hollywood himself, as a screenwriter on films including ”American Hot Wax” and ”Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.” ”The Dead Circus,” which takes place in the Hollywood of 1969 and 1986 (two distinct eras, between which everything, and yet very little, has changed), focuses less on the movie business and more on the seedy undercurrents that feed off it, a steady stream propelled by the activities of low-level hoods, women who seek out the wrong kinds of adventure and confused but honest guys just looking for a way to get ahead.


The Gene Burk of 1986 is a private investigator and former cop who’s nuts about old rock ‘n’ roll records — and heartbroken over the death of his fiancée, Alice Larson, a flight attendant who has recently been killed in a plane crash. As a way of getting to the heart of something in the midst of his numbness, Gene begins looking into the unexplained 1966 death of one of his favorite rockabilly stars, Bobby Fuller of the Bobby Fuller Four, whose case Gene had investigated as a cop in the mid-60’s, though he had never been satisfied with the coroner’s verdict of suicide. In his search for answers to that mystery, he unwittingly disturbs a series of nested secrets, chief among them his own connection to Charles Manson and his ”family.” Going through his dead fiancée’s things, he comes across a small collection of letters that were written to her by another Alice, Alice McMillan, a troubled misfit of a girl who had grown up with Gene’s Alice in the same Iowa town before running away to Los Angeles and becoming one of Manson’s lovers and an accomplice in some of his crimes.


Gene’s restless search for the truth about Bobby Fuller brings him into contact with all manner of thugs, mobsters and informants, some of whom have abstract, or not so abstract, ties to members of his own family: Gene and Ray’s mother, Mona, had abandoned the family when Gene and Ray were little, running off with a smoothie gangster named Jack Havana, whose son, Larry Havana, has taken over the family ”business” only to run it into the ground. Even as he’s nursing his devastation over Alice’s death, Gene has to navigate the strained relationships within his family, particularly his bond with his brother, whose heavy drinking has made him difficult to communicate with. And then there’s ”the other Alice,” Manson’s consort, a woman who escaped being arrested, convicted and jailed along with the other members of the Manson clan, disappearing into the desert with her own unsavory, queasy-making secrets.


”The Dead Circus” is a looming thundercloud of a book; it begins in a Southern California that seems permanently infused with sunshine and ends in one that has been forever submerged beneath the dark surf of a noirish nightmare. Kaye circles back, over and over again, not to the 1969 Manson murders, in which the actress Sharon Tate and a number of her friends were brutally killed in Tate’s home, but to minor events leading up to that night. It’s commonly accepted that the Manson murders drastically changed the mood and texture of Southern California in the late 60’s, essentially shutting down the era with a sickening thud. But Kaye has no interest in using the murders as a symptom of the troubled soul of society. He doesn’t diminish their impact, or their horror, by reducing them to a handy symbol. Instead, he draws out the most telling details of the Manson story, particularly the young Manson’s upbringing by a careless and inattentive mother, and his magnetic (and overtly sexual) hold over his female followers. Kaye stretches and spins those details into a melancholic but horrifying tone poem that rings out quietly but insistently throughout the book, like the low hum of a power line — the sound of pure madness and evil undercutting the beauty and fun of the sun, surf and stars.


But it’s not lost on Kaye that the same culture that allowed a Charles Manson to flourish also gave us the Beach Boys (who even recorded a song written by Manson). Kaye doesn’t flinch from corruption and decay, but he’s not obsessed with them for their own sake. If anything, he sees them simply as larger mirror versions of the smaller wedges of sadness that each of us carries deep inside — like the sadness that Gene, lost without his Alice, has enfolded into his very being.


KAYE’S book may be dark, but it isn’t depressing, probably because he’s such a compassionate writer. He makes us understand why Gene misses Alice so much, even though he can’t name the specific qualities that he loved the most about her. What Gene loved most, as he finally admits to himself near the end of the book, was the vastness of her unknowability. It’s a revelation that we see him working toward earlier in the story when, going through Alice’s things, he finds some nude pictures of her that had been taken by a previous (and now dead) boyfriend, Nick, of whom he’s slightly jealous: ”He was shocked by the photos he found stuffed in the diary, all shot by Nick: eight black-and-white nudes taken outside, in a grove of trees. In each picture she is standing next to or leaning against the same ancient black oak, holding a flower — cherry or apple blossom — between her smallish breasts. Her body looks relaxed, but there is something askew about her expression, imperfect, like the clouds on the horizon, stormy clouds that were different shades of gray and separated by the sky.”


Those pictures had been taken sometime in the 60’s, but Gene is looking at them in 1986, a year that seems a whole lifetime away. And yet for Gene, those pictures are a lifeline between the lost past and the endless present, a direct line to the life of a woman he misses very much. ”The Dead Circus” isn’t a particularly optimistic book, but near its end Kaye introduces a note of rueful joyousness. He shows us that desolation is not the same thing as emptiness, because unlike emptiness, it can fill a space — in the heart of a person, or even of a city.


Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon.com.


Published: 08 – 18 – 2002 , Late Edition – Final , Section 7 , Column 2 , Page 6


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