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Memoirs of a Sword Swallower Paperback – 1 Nov 1996
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The book described his experiences over six months as a young man traveling with a carnival around the Mid-Atlantic states, New England and upstate New York, the Ozarks and the South. Specific towns were rarely mentioned, and the time frame in general was vague. Since the book alluded to the Great Depression and Hitler's 1938 invasion of Austria, the author's experiences might have occurred sometime between the late 1930s and 1944-45. Yet World War II wasn't apparent even in passing and what biographical info the Internet has on the author said he was working in Washington during wartime. Another aside late in the book indicated that the year was 1950, which seemed much too late. Maybe the year was kept more or less vague to make the material seem fresh when the book was first published.
Raised in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia and graduating from a nearby Ivy League university, Mannix described falling in with the carnival somewhere in the South. Chapters of his book were devoted to experiences with fire-eating and sword-swallowing, which he eventually gave up for lock-picking and mind-reading. There were chapters on the characters he traveled and worked with: Jolly Daisy the wise fat lady, Krinka the human pin cushion and carnival leader, Aunt Matty the fortune-teller, the mind-reading team of Mr. and Mrs. Moyer, and Bronko the cowboy and his partner Lu. There were also Captain Billy the tattoed man, May the snake charmer, the Great Waldo who ate anything the audience gave him, a mentor named the Impossible Possible and his wheel of fortune, and Mountmorency the talented talker (barker was a word avoided by insiders). Plus a love interest, Billie, who worked in a troupe of young models that accompanied the show. Some of the photos in the edition I read were of the carnival people the author knew, though there were no photos of him in costume doing his acts.
The writing didn't rival Tolstoy, but the material was fairly well organized; as the author learned how to perform, he got to know the other characters and described their backgrounds and activities. He depicted the general life of a carnival worker, and attempted to figure out how the stunts and mind-reading were accomplished. The book ended rather abruptly when he chose to move on and further his career as a writer.
Most enjoyable were some of the descriptions, the author's sense of humor that recalled Mark Twain, and the generous way the people in the life looked out for each other. The exploration of carnival-goers' psychology--their attraction to what was freakish, dangerous or painful to the performers, to getting their fortunes told, and entering risqué shows that promised more than was delivered. And some of the words that were used at carnivals, like bally, stick, grift, tip, top, clem, grind man, crabber, blow off, flat joint, mitt camp, and rag show.
Mannix's mentor, the Impossible Possible, appeared to have spent long years in carnival life and also as a con man. One felt that another book could've been written solely about his life and adventures.
A broad history of carnivals from the Middle Ages to the 20th century is Secrets of the Sideshows (2005) by Joe Nickell, who called Mannix's book a novelized memoir. Another survey is Freak Show (1988) by Robert Bogdan. Mannix revisited one aspect of carnival life in 1976 with Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others.
Mannix tells the story of how he became involved in the bizarre and long-gone world of the traditional ten-in-one sideshow. If you are a fan of the history of sideshows and the circus, this is a must-read.
If anyone else has read this book and would like to share some thoughts on it (or other books on sideshows), please e-mail me!
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