The Circus of Dr Lao (Charles G. Finney)

27073383Mildly ironic that I should’ve read this after The Money Cult, in which the revivalist preacher Charles G. Finney plays a role; lo and behold, I now find THIS Finney was actually the other one’s great-grandson…

Anyway, this first novel by Finney the younger won the “Most Original Book 1935” at the first National Book Awards, apparently, and that’s an honour I’ve no doubt it deserved; in 1935 they would’ve been hard put to find anything quite as odd as this. Haven’t read the book until now, but a couple of years ago I did watch George Pal’s film version… which I enjoyed but I did gather it wasn’t exactly faithful to the book. Now I can see just how unfaithful it actually was, although in the end I suppose it all comes down to the different needs of the two things… you know, Pal had to make a family-friendly Hollywood film which, in 1964, probably wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the faintly disturbing sexual undercurrent of the book. Nor, indeed, its basic plotlessness; Pal added an entirely new subplot just to give the thing structure, where Finney is content with enigma. Lao simply rocks up and brings high strangeness with him to this dusty Arizona town, and whether the book as it stands would work as a film even now is probably debatable (how exactly would you render the bear, or is it a Russian, on screen?). It’s pretty short (I obviously managed to read it in a single evening) and probably rightly so, cos I suspect making the book any longer could’ve stretched it thin; also, it’s fantastically well-written, some really great turns of phrase with an overall deadpan tone that still finds room for somewhat oblique horror and humour. Plus, if you stripped out some of the unfortunate racist stuff and a reference to the Depression, you’d actually be hard-pressed to pick it as a 1930s book (though if it were a modern book, that undercurrent of sex would likely be far more explicit). Weird and fascinating.

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