I like carny books, so I was predisposed to enjoy FREAKSHOW, a novel by Jacquin Sanders that was published in hardback in 1954 by Little, Brown, reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in 1956 under the title STRIP THE HEART, and has just been reprinted again by Black Gat Books with an introduction by Jeff Vorzimmer, the edition that I read.
Bat Fidler is a young drifter who can’t seem to fit in anywhere, but when he
goes to work as a wrestler for a carnival, it looks like he may have finally found
a place where he can feel like he belongs. He begins an on-again, off-again romance
with a slutty young dancer, but the one he’s really drawn to is the Fish Girl,
a beautiful young woman born with underdeveloped arms who’s married to the
carnival’s owner, a man with a similar condition who’s billed as the Fish Boy.
Naturally, drama develops, and as it does, Sanders gives the reader plenty of
colorful scenes and inside dope featuring the carnival’s eccentric inhabitants.
It becomes obvious pretty quickly that the performers in the freakshow aren’t the only freaks in this novel. In fact, even though Bat isn’t the most likable protagonist, the reader can’t help but root for him because he’s surrounded by an even more unsympathetic cast of characters. The only one in this book who isn’t a pretty sorry specimen of humanity is the Fish Girl.
There’s a murder and a trial, but FREAKSHOW isn’t really a crime novel or a legal thriller, although it does manage to generate quite a bit of suspense in its later stages. It’s more of a mainstream novel with a noirish tone and reminds me a little of Orrie Hitt’s work, full of characters who get a variety of raw deals but still try desperately to grab on to some sliver of happiness. Sanders makes things so rough on his characters that I wasn’t sure he would be able to pull it all together in any sort of satisfying ending, but that’s what he does. With its small town Texas and midwestern settings, it also reminds me of William Inge and Larry McMurtry.
Overall, FREAKSHOW is compelling reading from beginning to end. It’s deliberately paced, but I read it quickly anyway because of the fine writing and the intriguing characters. As usual, the folks at Black Gat Books deserve our thanks for bringing back an excellent novel that deserves to be read. It's available in paperback and e-book editions. Highly recommended.