In subdued tones that reflect midlife despair and loneliness, Davisís novel has an unholy presence that winds with the thrill of a speeding rollercoaster. When we first meet him, Davisís unnamed protagonist is molding his body into a weapon,
honing it with a single-mindedness of purpose such as he has never felt before.
Inspired by the authorís own life as an aerialist and moving between the past, present, and future, The Trapeze Artistís straight-talking sensibility helps it sidestep any sentimentality that might have been its undoing even as the protagonistís chameleon quality serves him well. Heís rough around the edges and barely able to look after himself when he joins a sullen, failing circus then falls for earthy Vlad, the sexy star aerialist who can turn his body into a spinning missile as he flies back and forth upon the trapeze.
Born to suburban, middle-class parents ďprim and resistant to every form of risk,Ē the man descends into this world of spectacle and illusion ďthat is so alien to the one he knows.Ē In the process, he gets involved
in complex tangle of emotional issues as the setting shifts from the greasy, mud-splattered circle of trailers to the recollections of his school days and his crush on schoolmate Edward. With his languid walk and world-weary air, Edward inhabited a landscape of real glamour that seemed to cow the troublemakers of their class into leaving them both alone.
As our narrator makes furtive love to Vlad in his caravan, ďa cross between a thrift store and a gay disco,Ē Vladís strong limbs wrap around him. Although Vlad might show a certain ravishment from age and circumstance, the man succumbs to his loverís taste and the heat of his desire.
This juxtaposition between longing and denial shapes the novel into a unique love story.
The protagonist realizes that Vlad is someone who cannot possibly know he has spent much of his adulthood living with his ailing, emotionally brittle mother.
Written in low-key melancholy tones, the novel offers careful insight into circus life, schoolyard bullying, and the cutthroat war-zone mentality that accompanies both. Using contemporary language, Davis plunges us into gay life, making his protagonists--his narrator, Edward, and their best friend, Paul--always believable and real. While both time periods are evoked in careful detail, the taleís real strength and its narrative spine
lie in the way it nails the 1980s and small-town Englandís unsettled attitudes towards homosexuality.
Choreographing a dizzying dance to the syncopation of his heart, the narrator
sets the tone as he transforms his house into an aerialistís paradise. In his insecure youth, heís labeled ďa queer" and afraid of doing the slightest thing that might call attention to himself.
Then flamboyant, defiant Edward enters his life. These scenes are juxtaposed with the narratorís time in the circus, where he does hard labor
amid resentment by others of the fact that he has been granted permission to stay. Amid the familiar old pounding of his heart, he recalls the hopelessness and awe of his love for Edward, and the combination of terror and lust at meeting Vlad in the pools of shadow outside the big top.
Davisís lucid, poetic prose reflects an unresolved slice of a wearisome life.
Between Vladís furious, needy kisses, the man senses he ought to be ďleading a different kind of existence.Ē The real question posed is whether his need for love will finally trump his internalized homophobia. A happy ending is not guaranteed, yet Davis does an exceptional job of moving us across the vast array of his hero's universal emotions
and taking us to the very heart of his issues in ways that matter most.