Robert Jackson Bennett: why isn’t everyone reading this guy? Here is an authentic voice with an original vision, a uniquely American dark fantasist who can weave the three Fates into the Great Depression and fairies into a story about vaudeville. With The Troupe, Bennett moves closer to the setting and milieu he created so well in his first novel, Mr. Shivers. The Troupe is a long story with a rich cast, a powerful coming-of-age tale entwined with a traditional fantasy quest.
George Carole is a sixteen-year-old piano virtuoso, a spoiled and arrogant young man. George ran away from his home in Rinton, Kansas a few months ago and has been playing piano at the Otterman Theater. Now he’s leaving the theater to find a specific vaudeville act, the Silenus Troupe. George is convinced, from information his grandmother gave him, that the troupe’s leader, Hieromono Silenus, is his father.
The Silenus Troupe is a quartet of acts, strange for vaudeville, and even stranger is the fact that no one George talks to can really member the fourth act. It’s like a dream. When he finds the troupe, he discovers that he is not the only one looking for them. They are being pursued by men in gray, men that somehow don’t seem quite right.
Hieromono — or Harry — does not welcome his illegitimate son with open arms. Neither does anyone else in the troupe. Collette, the dark-skinned dancer who is billed as a “princess of Persia” is suspicious of him and angry at Harry. Frannie, the strongwoman, keeps calling George “Bill.” Kingsley Tyburn, the puppeteer, barely notices him. Only Harry’s strange, silent friend Stanley, who plays the cello, shows George any kind of friendliness. Soon, though, George must stop worrying about how he fits in, because he learns what the gray men are hunting — what the troupe is fighting so hard to preserve.
The story is set somewhere between 1900 and 1920, in the American Midwest. The quest itself is reassuringly familiar. Silenus is searching for pieces of an artifact, a powerful force in the world, and so are the beings he calls shadows, or sometimes “the wolves.” The wolves have already destroyed some parts of the artifact. Silenus must not only find the remaining pieces, but safeguard the ones he has. Soon, though, the reader comes to doubt whether Silenus is the best person for this task. The prices the other performers have paid on this journey, for a quest that is not theirs, have been very high. Silenus is no paragon. When George asks Silenus about an atrocity Kingsley has revealed to him, Silenus says, “He’s a good man.” George, horrified, protests that Kingsley is not a good man, and Silenus brusquely corrects him:
You misunderstand me. When I say Kingsley is a good man, I don’t mean he’s morally just. I mean he’s useful and competent, and he serves our goals well.
Silenus is believably venial, and George is believably brash and self-centered. As in real life, George makes breakthroughs, and then backslides. He earns a surprisingly powerful patron because of a spontaneous act of gallantry, but wounds Stanley, his only true friend, out of his own tunnel vision and naiveté. His infatuation with Collette is a selfish one, and it isn’t until the very end of the book that he begins to truly see her. To be fair to George, though, Harry Silenus isn’t the best father-figure a boy could have.
Bennett is sure of his material and his plot. In some places, things go on too long, but mostly the pacing is just right. He describes magical implements, ghosts and fairies with the same concrete detail as the train rides and Harry’s clothing. Near the middle of the book, he pauses to give us a long passage describing a day in the life of a vaudevillian.
You lived for the afternoons and the nights, when you did your turn. Everything else was backstage, in a way; the train station, the railways, the hotels and the bars, all of these were just a long, drawn-out wait in the shadowed corridors behind the real performance.
He describes other things powerfully too:
A rib was exposed and it looked somehow thin, as if it’d been whittled down, and it seemed as if something had been eating at it and the surrounding flesh with many tiny mouths.
Racial inequality is part of this landscape, just like the worn velvet curtains, the gritty train rides, and the decrepit hotels. George is not a fantasy-wish-fulfillment character bringing a 21st century sensibility to this problem; he is a product of his time and environment, and he doesn’t really see the inequality until he imagines a situation from Collette’s point of view. It’s in moments like these that we see George grow.
The story is dark. Good people die. The supporting characters are strong and enigmatic. One of the most intriguing characters is the wolf in the red coat, an example of the kind of horrifying/funny thing Bennett does very well. The dramatic climax goes on a bit too long, but I was willing to keep reading, because the real suspense is whether George will ever get to truly know his father.
The Troupe is not just a good book for fathers and sons. This is a good book for people who grew up reading Ray Bradbury, Madeline L’Engle or John Steinbeck. It’s a good book for people who are looking for that little tingle they felt, years ago, when they read their first Stephen King book. Go read it. Then give it to your friends. Seriously. You’ll thank me.
The Troupe, by Robert Jackson Bennett, follows George Carole, a young piano player who has been trying to find the mysterious Silenus Troupe, a group of vaudeville players whose fourth act nobody seems able to ever remember. George believes the leader of the group, Hieromono (Harry) is the father who abandoned his mother long ago. Adding to their mystery is that they are being pursued by the “Grey Men,” whom George somehow can see or sense better than anyone else.
Turns out, once George does catch up with the troupe, they are even odder than he had thought, with a strangely detached woman who can bend iron, a doctor whose puppets seem a bit too alive, a Persian dancer, and a mute cello player who becomes more of a father to George than Henry does (to say Henry was shocked by the news would be an understatement).
Soon George is on the run with them from the Grey Men (also known as “wolves”) and joins them in their own pursuit of something that may determine the fate of the world. Also in the mix are the personified four seasons and a group of particularly nasty fae. To say more though would be to ruin much of the fun of experiencing The Troupe.
There is a lot more here and to be honest, some might consider it too much. My wife, for example, thought Bennett tried to cram too much into the book and wished he would have been more selective about the fantasy aspects. I actually didn’t mind it though because, while he does toss a lot of ingredients into the recipe, I thought that made some sense considering the premise of the Troupe’s quest.
Bennett also takes some chances with character here as the two major ones — George and Henry — aren’t actually particularly likable for huge chunks of the novel. George is arrogant, selfish, and often oblivious (not all that shocking for his youth, though a bit more than most). Henry is aloof, gruff, and might seem to have some misplaced priorities. These two are somewhat counterpoised by the warmth of Stanley (the cellist) and Frannie.
Meanwhile, Collete the “Persian” allows Bennett to explore youthful infatuation/love and more seriously, racism. And Kingsley, the puppeteer, adds more than a dash of true horror (is there anything more creepy than those damn ventriloquist dummies or too-alive puppets?).
I enjoyed the vaudeville context of the story and actually could have done with more focus on the historical aspect — there is an absolutely brilliant and too short section in second person that takes us through what it was like to perform in vaudeville at the time. But while I would have liked more in that area, I have to say there were some pacing issues here and there and the ending, especially, I thought dragged a bit. In fact, I’d say in general I found the ending (or near-ending) to be the weakest section of the novel.
Despite those few issues, I thoroughly enjoyed The Troupe, reading it in two sittings. Having read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, I’d have to rank my weird traveling performing troupes books as such:
1) Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
2) The Troupe
3) The Night Circus
(My memory and nostalgia would actually have me put Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes on top of all of them, but as it’s been some years since I’ve re-read that, I’ll just have to say it’s in the mix.) Any others out there I should read?