Monica Drake came from the same writing group that spawned both Chuck Palahniuk and the remarkable short story writer Amy Hempel, and I can’t tell if that’s to her detriment. Her first novel reads a bit like a Chick Palahniuk, sort of that punchy insane society where ugliness breeds from the surreal. It’s not as salacious or socially overt as Palahniuk, but it still seethes with all the malice and pop weirdness of his works. And despite a clunky kind of romance cliche that clutches to the spine of the story like a fatted tumor, the book’s just so damn weird as to be enjoyable.
Clowns work the dark side of Baloneytown. They allure coulrophiles with balloon animals, use rubber chickens as commerce, and cavort in manners that are some parts Chaplin and some parts grim prostitution. Some call clowning art, some call it a desperate lifestyle, others use the makeup to mask their hideous lives.
Clown Girl lives with her ex-boyfriend and his new muscle-bound mutant girlfriend, trying to make enough money pulling corporate gigs and dodging gropey clown sex maniacs so that she can join her beau, Rex Galore, who has gone off to Clown College. She’s working herself to the bone, tying balloon animals in the shape of Christian dogmatic symbols to pawn off on hateful children. Clown Girl draws the eye of Jerrod, a sweet hearted cop who wants to help her ride off into the sunset on his horse, who tries to be a stand up guy in a crumbling burg.
And that becomes the strange and pathetic love triangle at the heart of Clown Girl. Nita (her real name) hides behind her floppy shoes and baggy pants and her almost fanatical devotion to Rex, who strings her along as she pays his way. It’s far more complicated than a simple heel vs. hero love quarrel, because of the creepy and perverse sickness that pervades the entire novel. There’s a greasy film that covers all the events of the story, like a stained circus in a low rent part of town where you can see the needle marks on the trapeze artist. It’s a freak show, but where everyone’s some form of broken down freak. It’s horrifying and ugly, and that has nothing to do with clown hair.
For two summers, I made balloon animals at festivals and boat shows. For eight hours I worked my fingers to the bloody bone, tying swords and parrots and flowers for hordes of children. The skin on my index fingers would actually rip and peel off in huge rents of flesh. I would have to beg off and apologize for getting blood on the child’s poodle. Sweat poured from my massive foam cowboy hat as I twisted latex in the scalding sun. It was heaven, sweltering in the middle of hell. I was given the job through an ex-girlfriend who scalded my heart irrevocably, and I ended up seducing another balloonist into my bed just to make her heart pop like a flimsy sculpted bunny balloon. I was horrible to her, and all she did was teach me a better way to twist teddy bear faces. So sickly, I can relate to this tale.
The story opens with an epigraph telling the tale of a theater fire. A clown ran in off stage screaming to the crowd, “Fire! Fire!” They laughed, not sure whether to take him seriously. And the more he shouted, the more the crowd cheered. That’s the heart of this tale, and the mild cloud that obscures it. You can’t tell if Drake is serious or not. The book sort of has this entirely droll attitude of seriousness in the face of this highly melodramatic comedy. It’s soap opera fodder, like a novella on Telemundo, with huge fights being conducted by grown men in floppy hats and baby costumes. It’s a damn interesting read, even if it’s not completely perfect.