Niagara Falls All Over Again, by Elizabeth McCracken, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, LLC, 2002
“Retrograde nostalgia” is the phrase I use to describe the feelings of longing for a time in which you never lived. Apart from a number of varying eras (West Bank Paris during Jazz Age or the Renaissance), I often wish I had lived during the pre-television age ruled by vaudeville. What a thrill to buy a ticket for the show and see hypnotists, contortionists, seal acts, dog singers, dancing, comedians, burlesque girls, Irish tenors, monopede dancers, monologists, etc. etc. Novels that tell of the backstage life of vaudeville always suggest that the private lives of the “stars” are even wilder, weirder, funnier, and sadder than the actual on-stage business.
Elizabeth McCracken’s sure-handed second novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, tells of Rocky Carter and Mose Sharpe, vaudeville act Carter and Sharpe, as told by Mose Sharpe, starting with their initial meeting before he backs up to tell of his childhood. That story quickly catches up to this first partnership, and the story gains speed from thereon out.
One of the only Jewish families in a Des Moines suburb, the Sharpe’s are run by a patriarchal tailor, though they are quickly bereft of their mother. The son Mose is the only boy in the family and he’d have ended up a tailor too if it weren’t for his older sister, Hattie, who “adopted” him upon birth. She is most responsible for him ending up in show biz. Their respective roles (Hattie as top billing, Mose as second fiddle) is his role in life, in all of his partnerships, always the straight man.
Hattie’s early death by falling off the roof of their house, and Mose’s failed attempt to save her life by catching her (ending in his two broken wrists), put an early pained cloud across his life. It’s not particularly giving away much to let that bit of the story out early. There is a kind of overarching storyline to these kind of rags to riches fame tales and an early taste of loss of a loved one is almost always in the mix. If you don’t see Hattie’s death coming long before it happens, you need to read more books.
Which is in no way to say that Niagara Falls is dull or predictable. It is anything but. Of course, you know when the book is a long life from childhood to old age, there will be death, death, and more death. Parents. Children. Partnerships. Partners. The book’s first half is a slapstick routine with only a little regret mostly tied to Mose having to deny his father’s dream of passing on the store and the various acts and loves he finds along the vaudeville circuit that don’t’ last. On the road he drops the obvious Hebraic and opts for the stage name of Mike Sharpe, though he’s called Mose by one and all save for the biz.
Here we learn of his first love Miriam, a 16 year old also on the circuit doing a double entendre act where she pretends to be a little, little girl who is always licking lollipops and the like. Girls become a recurring aspect of Mose’s life, the straight man as ladies’ man. As an interesting side note, McCracken tells us that Mose even figures much stage business by his relationships with women. How to dandle a trinket, how to do the long burn, the blank stare, the transparent lie, all the little tricks a good straight men will need.
And what are we to make of Mose’s partner, the robust, rollicking, Rocky Carter? Goyim to Mose’s Jewish, fat to Mose’s thin, generally a failure with the ladies to Mose’s player status (though Rocky is frequently married), needy where Mose is coolly able to detach. He is Mose’s perfect match for a double act. Always ready to turn any little moment into comedy and any little laugh into another bit for the act, Rocky is the soul of the party everywhere he goes. One of the very first pieces of wisdom he lets drop in Mose’s ear is this delightful near blasphemy:
You knew there were awful things in this world, what people had to bear. But God had rigged up one kind of consolation, you could get a good story out of it. “This,” said Rock, “is the lesson of the Bible.”
Here is where success comes in, the joining of the two men into one person. Mose reflects at one point that that old saw “two souls become one” is a terrible idea for a marriage but is instrumental in a successful vaudeville partnership. At the same time, he notes somewhat contradictorily that a good partnership is much like a good marriage with its ups and downs and its most necessary ingredient, love. The love between Rocky and Mose is a beautiful thing, though not as beautiful as when Mose finally marries and begins to raise a family.
As McCracken points out in the interview that accompanied this audiobook, she started out to write a family book a long time ago, had difficulties, then decided to write a book about a vaudeville double act and incorporated the family into it. The various family scenes she writes, Mose’s childhood family and his later adult family he creates with his wife, Jessica. This is where the story becomes rather touching, charting the usually quite stable relationship and how when it does sour briefly it does so with a vengeance. McCracken writes of rage and pain in such a sympathetic way you find it impossible to find fault.
The novel’s second half is where the really dark shadows begin to creep. Hemingway observed that if you keep a story going long enough, it will end in death. Stories like this are always written first act comedy, second act tragedy. McCracken writes as though she were John Irving’s nearly as talented understudy in this regard. Shadows fall across every aspect of Mose’s life in this second act, leading ultimately to the dissolution of Carter and Sharpe and nearly of Sharpe and his family.
The second half had me fighting back tears. It wouldn’t do at my office (where I listen to most of my audiobooks) to sob quietly in my cubicle. When you know that one of the characters is desperate for love, for life, for food, for drink, you know just know that eventually his bad habits will catch up to him and kill him. Apparently even the absence of Rocky Carter was too hard for the author to write out without some kind of tears, and so it merely disappears, leaving a letter saying “goodbye” and thus exits. It is the one time McCracken flinches from a bitter moment, but since it only happens once and since she so expertly walks the fine line between tender and sentimentalism with barely a foot over, we can forgive her this.
Reader George Guidall, who is no spring chicken, sounds livelier in this recording than he has in a number of things I’ve heard him do lately, which is telling. I think I have developed the ability to tell when a narrator loves the work s/he’s doing and when it’s just another paycheck. This was a love labor for all parties concerned.