The prospect of a debut book brings with it both excitement and hesitancy. Though bound to be disappointed, there is always the possibility that a reader can discover the work of a fledgling Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx. After all, every great author wrote a first book.
With The Aerialist, the jury will have to continue to deliberate before deciding into which category Richard Schmitt falls. The book is filled with promise, though much of it is, as of yet, unfulfilled. Schmitt is certainly a capable writer, one able to tell a story. Parts of this book bring to mind such gripping, full-tilt character studies as those of Ron Hansen and Kevin Canty. But ultimately, Schmitt's book is the literary equivalent of skipping stones: It jumps quickly across a surface, before plummeting straight down into a muddy lake.
Schmitt chose to write of the circus, a topic sure to elicit much expectation. There is no more fascinating area of society -- no area more simultaneously compelling and revolting -- than carnival culture. But in order to add to the genre, a writer must be privy either to insight or to the appearance thereof. For example, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, panned this area in such a way as to reveal heretofore hidden aspects.
But Schmitt is too damned clinical, refusing to dirty his fingernails scratching the veneer. There is no question he is familiar with the circus life -- with the jargon and the behind-the-scenes, everyday work of the circus -- but the depth of Schmitt's knowledge is something that can be obtained by mere observation. If the setting had been moved to a construction site or the Biosphere, we would have no more nor less access to the people behind the job. Schmitt needs to avoid his tech-manual tendencies.
Thus the book's setting is, unfortunately, a relatively random choice for a workmanlike coming-of-age story, though with the added and unfulfilled promise of a running-away-and-joining-the-circus theme.
Gary is a dead-end fuckup in the '70s, with no direction and no prospects. He joins the circus on a whim, more to escape a situation than to further his prospects. Once past its unlikely beginning, the first half of the book is a fun ride. Schmitt's lack of depth is disguised by a literary sleight-of-hand that introduces us to a dizzying array of off-the-wall characters. The story moves as quickly as the circus train, which goes from town to town, the workers expertly setting up and tearing down for the next town. Schmitt would have been very successful in writing a book of connected short stories featuring each of the characters. Their stories are very entertaining.
The book loses steam when Gary discovers a love for wire-walking and thus begins to become the titular character. Two problems arise at this point: One, the story sinks into a depressing mire from which it does not recover, and, two, out of nowhere and with no realistic prompting, Gary becomes a deep, brooding and serious character. The first-person narrative takes on the over-earnest rant of a reformed alcoholic preaching the gospel of abstinence.
Schmitt simply cannot decide which story he wants to write. He gutsily gets close a few times, but his most admirable risks are ultimately his biggest failures. For example, throughout the book Gary's visual and aural soundtrack is that of Bob Dylan, a risky symbol, with so much cultural baggage, but the perfect icon in the right hands. In a playful, almost magical scene halfway through the book, Dylan attends a circus performance and comes face-to-face with Gary and cohorts. Gary writes: "I suspect we were the first real circus people Dylan had met because he seemed to study us as much as we studied him." This would be positively poignant if, at any time in the book, Schmitt had allowed us to meet real circus people.
Toward the end of the book, Gary describes a friend's psychological need for life on the road: "... the dreary truck stops, the fast food, the black ribbon of asphalt disappearing over a rise only to reappear around the next curve, the delusion that if you kept driving you'd get someplace." He may as well be describing The Aerialist.
Schmitt has strengths and promise as a writer; his humor, his mischievousness and his observational ability are all quite intact. He needs to mine his characters a lot more, flesh them out and, in turn, allow his readers the opportunity to experience empathy. This book ain't there.