Cover image for Lives of the circus animals : a novel
Lives of the circus animals : a novel
Bram, Christopher.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : William Morrow, [2003]

Physical Description:
341 pages ; 24 cm
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Critically acclaimed novelist Christopher Bram has written some of his best work about life in the performing arts. In Father of Frankenstein, the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie Gods and Monsters, it was Hollywood in the thirties and fifties. In The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes, it was the strange world of Victorian music and spiritualism. Now, in Lives of the Circus Animals, Bram explores contemporary New York theater, spending several days and nights with a diverse handful of men and women.

There is Caleb Doyle, a hot new playwright whose newest work, Chaos Theory, has just bombed. His sister, Jessie, also loves theater but has no outlet for her talents except to work as the personal assistant to British actor Henry Lewse, "the Hamlet of his generation," while he does a Broadway musical. Henry loves Shakespeare, money, grass, and boys.

Then there's Frank Earp, an ex-actor who courts Jessie and is directing a troupe of acting students in a homemade play. Among the students is Toby Vogler, a nice kid from the Midwest who has a whole other career at night. Toby was once Caleb Doyle's boyfriend.

Overseeing this world like an unhappy god is Kenneth Prager, second-string theater critic for the New York Times.

Leaping from one life to another, one day to the next, the novel throws these people together in a serious comedy about love and work and make-believe. Lives of the Circus Animals is a cross between a Mozart opera and a Preston Sturges movie. A look at theater people who are just like everyone else, only more so, it's a comic celebration of how we all strive to stay sane while living in the shadow of those two impostors, success and failure.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Endearing, aging gay actor Henry Lewse thinks he wants sex and not love, yet he is drawn to Toby, a very good aspiring young actor, who still nurses a breakup with Jessica Doyle's successful playwright brother, Caleb. Fag hag Jessica, meanwhile, can't seem to let herself fall for failed actor Frank, the one man who completely adores her. Ascerbic Times second-string theater critic Kenneth hates his life and, so his therapist suggests, takes it out in his reviews, most recently on Caleb's most recent play. Which brings us to the pistol and Caleb's mother. From Henry to Jessica to her lovable, slightly off-kilter mother, who has (fortunately) very bad aim, Bram gives us characters to love for their humanity and vulnerability from the outset of a sweetly funny and engaging novel that makes the contemporary New York theater scene spring to life in an imaginative unfolding of the interrelationships of fascinating, often eccentric, always less-than-perfect people being themselves. --Paula Luedtke Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Clever stage satire and compassionate character writing distinguish this heady, humorous New York theater novel by the author of The Notorious Mr. August and Father of Frankenstein (which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Gods and Monsters). The title (a Yeats reference) effectively conveys the fondness and gentle derision with which Bram presents his ensemble cast. Henry Lewse is a prominent British actor starring in a musical, but preoccupied with sex. His latest find is Toby Vogler, a good-looking, not terribly bright young man, honored to have the attention of a star, but too earnest to provide full satisfaction ("Why am I such bad sex?" he sobs). Toby is longing for Caleb Doyle, a playwright whose first stage success was followed by the immediate and ignominious failure of his second. Caleb's sister, Jessica, is also a theater enthusiast and works as Henry's assistant. She is loved by Frank Earp, a rather bedraggled director who has come to terms with the limits of his career, directing schoolchildren and off-off-off-Broadway plays (his current show is staged in an apartment). Presiding gloomily over the rest of the cast is Kenneth Prager ("The Buzzard of Off-Broadway"), the Times reviewer who shot down Caleb's play. After much acting, gossip, psychoanalysis and sex (mostly inept), all come together at Caleb's big-finale birthday party. As he proved in Father of Frankenstein, Bram has a sophisticated understanding of celebrity and the intersection of gay and straight worlds. His savvy-and his easy familiarity with the New York theater scene-gives edge and nuance to this witty entertainment. Agent, Edward Hibbert. (Oct. 1) Forecast: After his sweeping historical novel The Notorious Dr. August, Bram returns to a smaller canvas. Fans of Father of Frankenstein (and Gods and Monsters) will be pleased, as will Waugh and Wodehouse readers who recognize the British comedy of manners lurking inside this American theater satire. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Bram (The Notorious Dr. August) has crafted a complex story about the lives of theater people, the "circus animals" of the title. Within the New York setting, theater happens at all levels, from children's school plays to Broadway musicals to avant-garde off off Broadway. Henry Lewse is a British actor starring in a Broadway musical. Jessie Doyle is his much-needed personal assistant. Her brother, Caleb, is a playwright whose latest play was shredded by theater critic Kenneth Prager. Frank, Jessie's new boyfriend, is directing a reality play in Apartment 2B. Toby, Caleb's former lover, is trying hard to break into show biz. In a supreme comedy of errors, all these characters come together with Jessie and Caleb's mom at Caleb's birthday party. When Kenneth Prager sits next to Mom Doyle, thinking it the safest place in the room, he gets the shock of his life. The well-drawn characters run the gamut of the human condition, and the story encompasses all the joys and sorrows of everyday life, revealing that circus animals are much like the rest of us. Recommended.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Ashaway, RI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Lives of the Circus Animals A Novel Chapter One "You want strangers to love you?" There was another long pause. "No," he said. "I just don't want them to hate me." "And who do you think hates you, Kenneth?" "Oh, everyone." She laughed, much to his surprise. Her laughter was thin and professional, but not unfriendly. "I'm joking, of course. Most people don't know me from the man in the moon. And it's not real hate. Not really. Even from people who do know me. It's fun hate. Faux hate. I'm the man-they-love-to-hate." He sighed. "Oh, all right. Yes. It does get to me. Sometimes." "Of course," said Dr. Chin. "We'd all rather be loved." She sat in an armchair, a mild, round-faced woman in a ruffled blouse, under a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a skull in a desert. Kenneth Prager sat on the sofa -- the far end of the sofa -- tall and lean in a charcoal gray suit. This was his first time in therapy, his second session. Forty-four years old, he had managed to avoid this rite of passage until now. He was not enjoying it. Not only did Chin expect him to do most of the talking, but she also refused to let him have the last word. His livelihood was built on having the last word. He took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "They call me the Buzzard of Off-Broadway." This time she didn't laugh but looked concerned, even hurt, for his sake. "And how does that make you feel?" "Oh, I was flattered. At first. All right, somewhat miffed. A predecessor was called the Butcher of Broadway, so it's old material. When you get mocked, you want the jokes to be more original." She wrote something on her notepad. He feared his flippancy revealed more than he knew. "But that's not the cause of my depression," he said. "If it is depression. I don't feel guilty about my work. My caring what people think is just a symptom, not a cause." Therapy was his wife's idea. Gretchen had grown tired of his glum spirits, his sour sorrow. He couldn't understand his unhappiness either. His life could not be better. He had a loving wife, a pretty daughter, a good job, even a dash of fame. He was only second critic at the Times , but strangers recognized his name if not his face. He should be happy. But he wasn't. This failure of happiness worried him. If the achievement of so much in life could not make one happy, then why bother living? "I love my work," he insisted. "I've always loved theater. The immediacy of it. Real human presences. I enjoyed reviewing movies well enough, which I did for three years. But I was only third-stringer there and saw too much trash: horror-slasher-teen pics and such. So I was overjoyed when they moved me to drama. Where I'd always wanted to be. The unease didn't set in until after New Year's. I thought it'd pass, or I'd get used to the strangeness, but the strangeness only got stranger. Back in March, Bickle, the first reviewer, went into the hospital for heart surgery. So a few plums fell into my lap, including the big new Disney bomb, Pollyanna. Everyone panned it, not just me. We were all surprised when Disney pulled the plug. Nevertheless, I was the one who got congratulated for killing the beast. Which felt odd. Then there was a new play by the author of Venus in Furs . Everyone wanted it to be good. I know I did. But it wasn't. It was called Chaos Theory and was about madness and mathematics. I think it was really about AIDS -- the author is gay -- which I said in my review. But it was just so self-indulgent and preachy. It closed too. This time I got hate mail. Floods of it. From people calling me callous and homophobic. And I'm not homophobic. I'm in theater, for pete's sake. Well, not in it, but of it." Chin was looking down at her notepad, without writing. Her pencil quivered. Had she read his review? Did she adore the play? She thought he was homophobic? "So --" He hurried back to the real subject. "I was relieved when Bick returned and I was number two again. It took the pressure off. But nothing's felt the same since. The strangeness returned. It felt worse than ever. Nothing has any savor anymore. Everything feels gray. I'm not sure what I want anymore." She flipped through her notes, as if she'd lost her place. "You want to be number one again," she said idly, as if it were too obvious to mention. He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "Yes, no, yes," he replied. "I should want Bick's job, shouldn't I?" "You don't?" "There's talk of retiring him. They need a replacement, which is why they moved me over to drama. As a test. And I wanted the job. Once. But I don't anymore. Only -- I don't not want it either. I'm not sure what I want anymore." She studied him with her round, smooth, full face. Kenneth couldn't tell if her stillness masked sympathy or disapproval. She seemed so cheerfully impersonal. In a less politically aware age, he could've thought of her as an inscrutable motherly Buddha. "Like I said," she offered. "You want people to love you." "Isn't that a silly thing for grown-ups to want? Especially someone in my line of work." She shrugged -- "silly" was irrelevant here. "Maybe if you praised more and criticized less?" she proposed. "Would you feel better about yourself then?" He stared at her. "But I'm a critic. I'm paid to criticize." "Aren't you also paid to praise?" Lives of the Circus Animals A Novel . Copyright © by Christopher Bram. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Lives of the Circus Animals: A Novel by Christopher Bram All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.