Circus + The Skin, the first novel from Keith McCleary, reviewed by Kelsi Brown

The premise is a deceptively simple one:

“A man walks in with tattoos that form a pattern he doesn’t understand, and asks me to explain. And I can’t explain. No matter how you got those tattoos. It’s not important anymore. It’s the skin that keeps you safe. Or ignorant, which is close. They will call to you. If they have not already. The skin will let you know it’s there.”

When a summer storm drives an assortment of circus performers apart and leaves them stranded in a town where their prospects for showbusiness are slim and the details surrounding the storm’s effects are muddled, Sue, the circus’ painted man, begins to get paranoid about everyone around him, spurred deeper into this state of wariness by whispers from the tattoos that cover his body. Frank, the circus owner, is having secret meetings with the circus’ sly visitor, Alphonse Ambrose, and it seems that none of Sue’s traveling companions can be trusted. In a patchwork of strange and suspicious characters, Sue has to know who he can rely on in his efforts to save the circus and himself, as his skin urges him to look below the surface at the events of the storm.

The circus group ends up holed up in a boarding house, awaiting Frank’s decision as to whether the show will go on or the circus will move on to the next town, but Frank’s growing sense of anxiety begins to fuel discord among circus performers as to Frank’s ability to make the best decision for all involved. Meanwhile, Sue is reconnecting with his suppressed memories, delving into the traumas and experiences that forged his connection with his tattoos that seem to be growing more sentient the further into his past he goes.

Keith McCleary’s presentation of the mind of an ex-military circus painted man trying to forget all he has lost is dark and gritty, haunted with remembrance of those he has lost. As Sue begins to revisit his memories in his encounters with the town’s inhabitants, he becomes increasingly more aware of his skin and its seeming attempts to reach him. McCleary’s writing style in Circus + The Skin is blunt and honest, adeptly reflecting the psychological and emotional turmoil Sue experiences as he dredges up the past to try and make sense of the present. Transitions between scene and flashback flow seamlessly together to create a jarring collection of images and experiences that drive us further and further into the strained consciousness of the narrator. Flashes of awareness of the markings on his skin intersperse with Sue’s remembrance of others’ reactions to his tattoos to construct a glimpse into the complicated relationship(s) he has with not only his tattoos but also the memories that surround each one:

I had my palms read by a gypsy when I was discharged, and she saw strangeness in the pattern on my skin. Over a bottle of vermouth she told me most of what she did was hoodoo, but occasionally she got a glimpse of something bigger. She said one of them times was looking at my tattoos.

Through these windows into his past, we begin to understand Sue’s trauma and remorse and how they affect his actions. Piece by piece, McCleary’s complex and mysterious protagonist unfolds on the page, slowly beginning to understand himself and his experiences as we also come to know our own.

One of the most striking elements about the novel is McCleary’s ability to so completely inhabit Sue’s perspective through the telling of the novel. From the narrative voice to the easy flow between memory and scene, McCleary’s protagonist controls the amount of information presented and how the information is interpreted in a way that gives us deeper insight into how Sue’s brain works and how he has learned to assess situations he finds himself in. The fracture Sue’s sense of reality is experiencing comes through not only in the imagery that captures Sue’s attention throughout but also the objective, straightforward way he presents the grotesque and the unusual.

Between gruesome scenes and moments of flashbacks, McCleary gradually introduces us to the dark memories Sue seems to hide in the darkest recesses of his mind. Sue describes his experience of becoming aware of his skin:

As I watched, an eye had opened in the darkness. It hung in shadow and looked at me unblinking. It was as if I had always been there.

The eye looked through my heart open like a house, I by its entrance, keeping my secrets there like they had any worth. Beyond the entrance of my heart the eye saw shadows, back rooms, empty and covered with the dust of time.

The allusive presence of the skin’s personification permeates Sue’s narrative as he tries to puzzle out what he is experiencing and attempts to connect repressed memories.

When Sue finally embraces the entire truth of his past, he concludes by noting how his experiences are written onto his skin in his tattoos:

The past weighs us, and we’re beholden. Those of us who try to find ourselves by patterning our skin are pulled forward and back at once. I carry memories with me. The marks have become a prison too.

Despite his attempts to move on from the past that drove him to his career as a circus painted man, his memories and past traumas bleed through, not only into his awareness of his surroundings but also into his sense of self, causing him to hear warnings from the markings that cover his body.

On the whole, Circus + The Skin is a seamless blend of psychological exploration and tension that propels us forward, ever deeper into the mind and memories of its protagonist. McCleary manages to fully immerse us in the true circus that is Sue’s view of reality based on the brutality he has witnessed and the experiences he has had. This firsthand connection to Sue’s perspective keeps us engaged and on edge from beginning to end and sustains intriguing tension throughout the novel.

Circus + The Skin, by Keith McCleary. Kraken Press, December 2018. 251 pages. $14.99, paper.

Kelsi Brown is a graduate student at Winthrop University majoring in English. She spends most of her free time reading and writing and hopes to eventually get her PhD and teach English at a university.

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