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Cat Man: A Novel by Edward Hoagland
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Cat Man: A Novel (1955)

by Edward Hoagland

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Edward Hoagland is best known for non-fiction environmental writing, but his first book in 1955 was a novel based on his experiences in his early 20s with a traveling circus. Most circus literature is about the performers while the crew are so much background ambiance. In Cat Man, Hoagland flips the picture and foregrounds the working guys while the circus itself fade into the background. There are two types of circus workers: performers and support crew. They have separate dining halls, buses and trains: the "first train" people are the guys who put up the tents, feed the animals, run the machines - the "second train" people arrive later. The performers are highly paid rare talent while workers tend to be down and out low-paid alcoholic drifters - "winos" with missing teeth, long hair, ratty clothing and a homeless odor. Times were different back then, rougher, and Hoagland's world is a dirty, smelly, low-brow violent place. Yet, as ex-clown Stephen Brennan said, Cat Man is "the best, the truest circus novel I've ever read." The plot is almost non-existent, other than about a young drifter who runs off the join the circus, and it even lacks a chronological progression with chapters jumping back and forth in time and place. Some of the chapters would stand alone quite well as short stories, vinaigrettes. Rather it is almost entirely a character study and hyper-real detailed description of day to day life working behind the scenes in a circus. One critic in the New York Review of Books compared it to Moby-Dick because of its encyclopedic detail.

I really enjoyed the novel although at times found the prose so dense with detail and so slow in action that I would scan over sections waiting for something to happen, in particular the descriptions of the big cats. But like a war novel, it captures the essence of long periods of inactivity and sudden bursts of action, usually violent and dangerous. As realistic documentation of the rougher side of circus life Hoagland's Cat Man is a timeless classic.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2008 cc-by-nd ( )
  Stbalbach | Jun 4, 2008 |
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