Not everyone gets to run away to the circus twice in one lifetime. But in Water for Elephants Jacob Jankowski does. Once as a young orphan who has done everything to become a vet but sit his final exams, and again seventy or so years later when he's 90 or 93. He can't remember. But he remembers quite a lot other than his age.
From the high literary qualities of Tinkers our club took a foray into the highly cinematic qualities of this novel. It's a favorite of book clubs and reading groups, and is supposedly rife with parallels between the protagonist, Jacob Jankowski and Jacob, grandson of Abraham, in the Bible. I wish one of you would tell me what they are. They are not obvious to me, other than a cryptic "Jacob's ladder" parallel to the ladder on the train cars that give access to the roof and that will be important late in the story.
What is obvious to me is this is a book about memory, something elephants are famous for and something humans are famous for treating as reliable when it isn't.
Sara Gruen builds a novel that is book-ended by a test of our memories as readers and a test of our faith in Jacob's reliability as a memoirist after we've read his recollections of his halcyon days as an uncertified vet to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth during the Great Depression.
The central question of plot is who killed August. Jacob, we are told, is the only one who witnesses the event and he tells us two different stories. An ancillary question of plot is who garrotted Uncle Al? There are no witnesses to that murder that we're told of. The central question I have after finishing the book is, after having lived such a long life, what has Jacob learned?
I read the novel on my Kindle complete with the pages of blurb reviews at the beginning; and at the end, complete with the author's notes, an interview of the author by David Welch of Powell's Books, sets of study/discussion questions for book clubs, listings of other titles to read (some damn fine suggestions they were) and finally a notice to join the Algonquin Book Club.
Looking at the structure of the novel, there are two settings: 1) The Present (one weekend) -- in the nursing home where ancient Jacob lives with his memories among other relicts of a bygone era; 2) The Past (a period of 7 years) -- on the circus train where young Jacob spends most of his time beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hung over.
The plot is basically a love triangle complicated by a menagerie and dressed up with side-show type supporting characters -- in short, a three-ring circus where love and loyalty are the central acts, represented by Rosie the elephant. Villainy and betrayal hold sway in the other rings.
The main character is the beacon of morality and self-appointed protector of the downtrodden who makes a dangerous near-fatal mistake of falling in love with Marlena, who is married to the cruel and schizophrenic August, the menagerie supervisor.
Yes, I enjoyed the story. I especially enjoyed learning circus jargon. Terms like:
"The Disaster March" for the code music the circus band plays when disaster strikes. In our case, the animal stampede caused by the red-lighted roustabouts and that covers up two slayings.
"Red-lighting" which is the brutal practice of throwing useless and trouble-making circus personnel from the moving train. Walter/Kinko and Camel are murdered by Uncle Al, who has them thrown off the train as it crosses a trestle that spans a river gorge.
"Rubes" circus customers who are to be bilked of their hard-earned quarters by barkers.
"Canvas men" another word for roustabouts.
"A First of May" a new arrival with absolutely no experience with circus employment (Perhaps derived from May being the beginning of the traveling circus season?)
"Flag's up" means mealtime. An actual flag is raised over the cookhouse tent to let everyone on the lot know the food's ready.
"Department" the category of job/responsibility a laborer has in the circus: ring stock, baggage stock, menagerie, etc.
"Kinkers" the laborers' term for the performers.
"Patches" circus workers who calm down and make happy any disgruntled customers, either diverting them so they forget their complaint, or removing them from the lot.
I also learned interesting details about the Great Depression -- how hobos in the hobo camps slept with their shoes off but with the laces tied around their ankles. From the notes at the end of the e-book, I learned that most hobos during the Depression were in their early twenties, and not the grizzled older men who are pictured in most movies of the era.
Regarding the literary merits of Gruen as a descriptive writer, there are two striking and long descriptive passage in the book that stick with me. The first is the telling of Jacob's leap and scrabbling crawl aboard the moving circus train.
One, two, three --
I reach for the iron grab bar and fling myself upward. My left foot and elbow hit first, and then my chin, which smashes onto the metal edging. I cling tightly with all three. The noise is deafening , and my jawbone bangs rhythmically on the iron edging. I smell either blood or rust and wonder briefly if I've destroyed my teeth before realizing the point is in serious danger of becoming moot -- I'm balanced perilously on the edge of the doorway with my right leg pointed at the undercarriage. With my right hand I cling to the grab bar. With my left I claw the floorboards so desperately the wood peels off, under my nails. I'm losing purchase -- I have almost tread on my shoes and my left foot slides in short jerks toward the door. My right leg now dangles so far under the train I'm sure I'm going to lose it. I brace for it even, squeezing my eyes shut and clenching my teeth.
Well, he manages to scrape his way inside and collapse on the floor, panting and utterly spent and feeling lucky to be alive. What he doesn't know is he's just delivered himself into hell.
The second passage is far too long to quote but occurs two-thirds through the book, when Marlena, dressed in spangly pink, and Rosie the elephant perform their act together for the first time, after Jacob has discovered Rosie "speaks" only Polish, and Augustus has worked with the now biddable elephant. The entire interplay between Marlena, the human, and Rosie, the pachyderm is designed to prove how intelligent Rosie is and how nearly human, as the two communicate and perform a comic routine that depends on the elephant's ability to show a sense of gentle mocking humor and one-upmanship. Two performers, working as one, united in the spirit of fun.
From this enchanting scene we appreciate the fusion in Jacob's mind when he first tells us that he was aghast to witness Marlena murder her husband, then later tells us that he's appalled to witness Rosie slay her trainer with the stake that supposedly keeps her tethered in place.
The last thing I want to mention in today's diary is the themes at work in the book. Probably most prominent is man's inhumanity to man and to animal that Uncle Al and August display, respectively. Another is the healing and redemptive power of love, which Jacob finds in the arms of Marlena and vice versa, and which Rosie finds from them both. Even Walter/Kinko is able to be coaxed to show similar love for "Jake leg" Camel that he shows to his Jack Russell Terrier, Queenie.
The last theme is present but confused in this book. It is the importance of truth. The first example of it is the realization by Jacob, upon returning to the house he's about to lose to a bank after his parents are killed, that his parents had mortgaged it to pay for his ivy league education. This knowledge destroys him, causing the breakdown that makes sitting his finals impossible and leading him to run away to the circus.
A second exemplary scene concerning the importance of truth is the one from which the book takes its title. In the nursing home, Jacob is outraged when Lawyer Joseph McGuinty announces at the dining table, "I used to carry water for the elephants." Jacob challenges him.
"You did not. You did not carry water for elephants."
"Are you calling me a liar?"
"If you say you carried water for elephants, I am. Do you have any idea how much an elephant drinks? I do, though, I was in a show." And so we learn, as Rosemary, the attendant at the nursing home learns, that Jacob worked in a circus.
Next time I want to talk about the two villains, Uncle Al and August, and about the two "side-kicks," Walter/Kinko and Camel, and interesting comparisons between sets of characters: Catherine/Marlena and Rosie/Marlena, and Rosemary/Rosie. I want to look at the scene when Jacob walks across the roofs of the cars while the train is underway, bent on murdering August as he sleeps. Finally, I want to explore a controversial question, the elephant in the room: Is anything Jacob tells us about when he was 23 true?