M.O. Walsh’s collection of linked stories, The Prospect of Magic, takes place in Fluker, Louisiana and revolves around the members of the Ploofop Carnival. When the ringmaster dies, the orphaned carnies have nowhere to go, and the citizens of Fluker warmly welcome them to their town. What results is a year of giraffes and elephants wandering the streets, destroying the trees and local soccer field, until Stanley Winston – a man conflicted in his enormous success – builds a zoo for the animals that leads to the building of a ZooCarnival for the carnies.
Yes, you read that right: a ZooCarnival.
And this is one of the most fascinating turns Walsh makes in this collection. Other reviewers have noted the collection’s theme of difference: Greg Langley writes that “The larger message…is that we are all freaks in one way or another;” Christel Loar writes that “Walsh’s prose peels back the screen to reveal the trick behind the illusion of ‘us’ and ‘them’;” and Sean Kinch argues that the collection “reminds us that…there remains a circus freak hidden in all of us.”
True. But the rest of us aren’t compelled to go live in a zoo on the outskirts of town.
The stories in The Prospect of Magic that are part magical-realism, part fairy-tale, gather into a chilling observation of society. The residents of Fluker definitely have their own freak show going on, but theirs is behind closed doors. The carnies, on the other hand, are forced to walk the streets with their freak showing – the bearded lady, the bat people, the clowns: each of them struggles to fit in, to find joy in small-town life. It’s a struggle that begins with the carnies “bored, terrified” (147), struggling “to be reborn in this world” (23) and ends with a line of carnies gathering at the home of a dead gypsy who had travelled with them, who had been one of them. In their turn, they step inside the house to say goodbye to the gypsy and to their attempt to live peacefully in Fluker. Tall Paul, the stilt walker, says, “It’s getting late…I ought to be back home and packing. I’m moving out to the carnival site tomorrow, you know. It’s official. I’m getting geared up” (206). And though everyone seems resigned to this move, it is the residents’ attitude about the move that is most disturbing:
It had just gotten so awful, you know, with those boys hanging around by the courthouse. And this new ZooCarnival, everybody’s excited about it. It’s where they belong, really…Some people didn’t see that at first, but at least we gave it a try, right? You have to admit the whole town gave it a try.” (167)
It may be true that there’s “a circus freak hidden in all of us,” but what M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magic brings to light is our unwillingness to let that freak out of the closet and into the light. And, if we’re living in Fluker, Louisiana, we have good reason. There’s a place for freaks. It’s a zoo on the outskirts of town.
I first read M.O. Walsh in the pages of the New York Times. His straightforward and humorous take on a slice of life impressed me and interested me. Not knowing what to expect in his first full-length collection, I picked up The Prospect of Magic and was immediately struck by the fairy-tale quality of the stories. Funny, surreal, fairy-tales that deal with dark, complex issues. Not an easy thing to pull off. And, for the most part, Walsh does pull it off. But what other reviewers don’t say, and what I think readers need to know before cracking the spine of this book, is that Walsh’s publisher has done him an enormous disservice. Livingston Press out of the University of West Alabama lists 3 co-editors on their website. You’d think at least one of them would have carefully copy edited the manuscript. What is painfully obvious is that none of them did. Or, if they did, they should take a leave of absence and enroll in a freshman composition course post-haste. The book is riddled with errors. I don’t mean one or two misplaced commas. I mean mistakes like misspelling “ringing” as “wringing,” completely changing a character’s name in the middle of a story, and dropped articles or extraneous prepositions. It’s just downright unforgivable for an editor and publisher to take so little care of their author’s work. And I only mention it here because so many readers are unaware of the publishing process and might mistake the editor’s failure as the author’s. You shouldn’t. The stories in M.O. Walsh’s collection are well-conceived, humorously written, and chock-full of fascinating characters. It’s a first collection that promises a great deal more from this author. I, for one, look forward to it.
4.0 on the Gabriel scala