The Greatest Show

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In this intricately woven short story collection, The Greatest Show, Michael Downs tells the sad long story of crumbling American cities through the lens of a tragic circus fire of 1944.

On July 6, 1944, a fire at a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus in Hartford, Conn., killed 168 people and injured several hundred more. That real-life tragic event binds The Greatest Show, a solid collection of interconnected short stories by Michael Downs, a former Hartfordite and author of a previous book about his native city. In this latest work—a maiden volume of fiction—Downs retains a reportorial objectivity in which facts are meticulously observed and stories are presented chronologically—beginning with “Ania,” at the scene of the ’44 fire, and ending with “History Class,” during the George W. Bush years. In part because these stories stretch over an extended period of time and because the lives of Downs’s working-class characters are so intertwined, The Greatest Show also has a novelistic feel—a novel-in-stories, perhaps—though the stories themselves operate well as stand-alone pieces.

Hartford is one of those formerly robust American manufacturing cities that is often overlooked—like Rochester, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, et al—and similarly, the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire seems to have been reduced to an historical footnote or a party-conversation curiosity. The fire is of course important to Downs’s stories, but its centrality to the collection is less certain than it might seem. These are indeed stories about suffering, memory, and human frailties and limitations; however, the fire is more an inside-section newspaper item than the singular emotional and psychological headline moment that defines the lives of most of its characters.

That suffering is “managed” by them with a blue-collar stoicism, a detached pragmatism, or an ethnic Roman Catholicism typical of the time and place. These are difficult things to render dramatically in fiction, but Downs accomplishes it. Marriages—good, bad, and so-so—carry on. Families grow, and labor is attended to. In most of these stories, the characters have already moved on from the circus fire with a matter-of-factness that speaks to their class and circumscription. An exception is “Ex-Husband, Years Removed”—perhaps the best story in the collection—in which grief is expressed with a complexity that captures, in an artful way, sudden tragic death and its colossal emotional remainder. The other stories are historically linked not as much to the horrific fire but to a certain imagined version of twentieth-century America, and to a mid-sized U.S. city now long past its heyday. Which is to say, these are realistic stories of ordinary people who lived in Hartford (the “Insurance Capital of the World”), ca. 1944-2004.

To this point, the primary character in The Greatest Show is a circus-fire survivor with no memory of the infamous blaze. “In his mind, he was born with the scars that crisscross his body,” the reader is told in “History Class,” as well as in other stories. “‘It’s a blessing that you don’t remember,’ his mother used to say. For years he believed her and never pushed for more than the spare details she offered, settling instead for glimpses he dreamed that vanished as he woke.” He is Ted Liszak, who was a toddler at the time of the fire. We learn about him first in “Ania,” a fine story in which the title character—an unhappy Polish housekeeper whose husband is away at war—steals circus tickets from her employer and takes her three-year-old son (Ted) to the doomed performance. Mother and boy survive, but they are badly injured.

At times Ted’s muteness and unknowingness regarding the fire can be frustrating—but it’s not fatal to the collection. Only in “At The Beach”—when Ted first meets his second wife, Rosa, during a weekend getaway—does his inability to recollect this most-integral part of his personal history have a negative effect on a story. In fact, in “History Class,” the last story in the collection, Ted fibs and creates a memory of the fire, for a stranger. This lie is reminiscent of when Ted’s father Charlie, in “Elephant,” invents a circus-revenge tale for the benefit of a teenaged Ted (and for himself?), as if memories, if we so choose, can be conjured from nothing, like in a center-ring magic trick. Earlier in “History Class,” Ted visits a high school to deliver an eyewitness account of the long-ago Hartford tragedy. But what could he possibly say about it? He brings along a laminated newspaper headline, singed shoelaces, and the actual circus tickets. But as in other stories here, it is Ted that is the show-and-tell item. His scars are there to be observed, and he offers them as evidence to the students, but his injuries are mere physical manifestations, not something to be felt emotionally by him.

In the title story, Ted returns again to Hartford—this time to attend the circus for the first time since 1944. The trip also marks his 60th birthday. The circus performance is scheduled, improbably, for September 11, 2001. As a result, all performances have been cancelled for the week. But after being told who Ted is, circus management and the gathered performers agree to put on a special show. After all, according to post-’44 circus tradition, “Hartford always gets a little extra.” This non-Ringling Brothers performance is at first solely for Ted and Rosa but passersby soon wander in once they hear the circus sounds, unaware that this impromptu show is for one of the last survivors of the Hartford Circus Fire. All of this seems a wee bit contrived. Yet what’s interesting about “The Greatest Show” is its payoff, as I see it: that is, just how little wonderment and excitement and imagination this modern-day circus elicits. From the point of view Downs uses to describe the scene, it is almost as if the circus itself has been scarred or deadened, and so it fails to transmit the full joyous amazement that circuses purportedly offer.

But the shows go on, as the well-worn dictum states, because they must. The city survived the ’44 Circus Fire, though it declined afterward along with other cities in the northeastern United States. Characters in The Greatest Show—young people in 1944—grow old then elderly, their kids go off to college (or not), and often sons and daughters move to “better places” in the South and West. Hartford—as it was, a place once known to them—dies off. Old-timers die off too, and so do their traditions. But the city persists, because the greatest show is not a circus but life itself.

And so, “real” memories coupled with real everydayness: Nick DiFiore, an aging prizefighter whose sister was killed in the fire, now battles dementia and his own decrepit body, in “Boxing Snowmen.” His loyal wife Lena cares for him, and worries fiercely about Nick. They never left Hartford. When a snowstorm interferes with the air-travel plans of their visiting son, Nick is angered and disappointed, and he retreats to his loyal recliner. “He drifted toward his own sleepy memory: of his sister the day before she died—in a fire so many decades past that no one talked about it anymore. They had met that day on Main Street outside Sage Allen’s department store, an accident of chance that inspired her to throw her arms around him and laugh in his ear, leaving her lipstick on his lobe. She wiped it away between her forefinger and her thumb; the next day she vanished in a fire. In the world, then out.”

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →