August 28, 1995 12:00 PM

by Bruce Feiler

No, this is not a book about the O.J. Simpson trial; it is the gritty, haunting story of an equally sordid universe: the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. Feiler, a Yale-educated writer and lecturer, lived out his childhood dream by becoming a clown with the largest tented circus in the world, prat-falling his way across 16 states and 99 cities in eight months during 1993. The bizarre, exotic subculture he uncovered proves as seamy and engrossing as anything David Lynch ever dreamed up.

Part sociological study and part adventure story, Feiler’s vivid account of circus life trots out one remarkable character after another: the lonely, 7’2″ giant who likes to sunbathe nude; the flying Romanoff acrobats who are actually Mexican; the studly Human Cannonball who proposes to a woman moments before blasting off. Feiler marvels at the group’s professionalism but has been shocked by behind-the-scenes bigotry, extortion, group sex and gossipmongering.

Feiler also recounts jarring tragedies—a drowning, a trapeze accident, the mauling of one person by a bear and the crushing of another by an elephant—mixed with poignant moments, such as the birth of rare Bengal tigers on Halloween, and his own epiphany as a clown when a child hugs his knee.

Through it all, the circus grinds on, for as Feiler observes, “In this religion the show itself is God.” The flawed, fiercely proud performers in Feiler’s book are archetypically American—dysfunctional but resilient, a troubled family bound by love. “Once [the circus] gets in your blood,” one character warns him, “it never gets out.” Feiler’s beautifully written book succeeds in showing us why that is so. (Scribner, $23)

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