The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough (Atlantic Monthly Press)
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

by Robert Hough (Atlantic Monthly Press)

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark feels like a sort of Great American Novel. That's weird because (a) its author, Robert Hough, is Canadian, and (b) while the book feels all-encompassing of the American experience, it deals with one of the truly freakish anomalies of that experience: the circus.

Even before the first page, I was worried: the book's a "fictional autobiography." The "fictional autobiography" genre, as everyone knows, was invented one terrible night when some stoned and pretentious creative writing majors had too much time on their hands due to their Wonder Boys DVD getting snapped in half by some mean-spirited jocks. What I'm getting at is this: between its premise and its format, Mabel Stark could've easily been a 422-page train wreck. (And a train wreck of a traveling circus at that, a few unfortunate giraffes' heads still sticking out of one of the crumpled cars.)

But Mabel Stark is an astounding book. Beginning with the 79-year-old Stark performing as "the oldest living tiger trainer" at the run-down JungleLand zoo in the 1960s, Hough skips back and forth through time to reveal Stark's life. The story focuses on Stark's role as the world's most famous circus performer in the 1920s and '30s, but it also deals with her mental breakdowns, her five husbands, and a whole lot of stomach-churning maulings and tiger attacks. Throughout, Stark is both deeply flawed and absolutely perfect; a powerful and beautiful presence among the circus' sketchy population of "felons, drug takers, dwarves, communists and arse lusters." She's a character whose emotional vulnerability can't help but clash with her fearless wrestling of 500-pound carnivores, and I think I might be in love with her.

Hough captures the attitude and emotions of America through the first half of the twentieth century, with Stark at the center. Like Katherine Dunn did with Geek Love, Hough brings a humanistic humor and melancholy to the otherwise freakish proceedings. And maybe it's because the characters are based in reality, but it all feels heart-breakingly honest and insightful--no easy feat when Stark's tiger show is one ring over from the guy who bites the heads off of live squirrels. ERIK HENRIKSEN