The Prospect of Magic
by M.O. Walsh
Livingston Press, $16.95, 140 pp.
A carnival is stranded in Fluker, Louisiana in M. O. Walsh’s first collection, “The Prospect of Magic.” Bearded women, tall men on stilts, a family of illusionists, and mind-reading gypsies have their lives halted when their ringleader, Abidail Plooftop, dies and leaves the caravan of performers jobless in a town of regular, non-performing citizens. This collection of similar-themed stories acts like the rings under a circus tent, linking together the narratives not only of the performers, but also the lives of the common residents of Fluker—a mother and father in need of performers for their son’s birthday, a car salesman, a deli owner. In a town where these two lifestyles—the ordinary and the theatrical—might clash on a grand scale, Walsh manages to narrate both worlds with sincerity and deft humor. In the same town where the now-beardless lady rents an apartment to restart her life with renewed order and purpose, there are giraffes wondering loose in the streets.
M.O. Walsh is not new to short fiction. This collection is made up of stories published in The Greensboro Review, New Delta Review, Phoebe, Epoch, and one story, “The Freddies,” was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2007. With such an over-the-(big)-top plot as a caravan of carnies, I expected the stories to be overtly sensational, larger-than-life, and beyond. However, the real magic of these stories comes with Walsh’s ability to tame the emotional life of his characters. He takes the reader through a cycle of heartbreak and regret that is more performance than rhetorical hype, much the way his characters might turn roaring lions into docile kittens.
Take “Hairy Days,” the first story in this collection. The traveling Plooftop Carnival has just ended indefinitely, the funeral of Abidail Plooftop looms for the disheartened performers, and Darby Ducote, the bearded lady herself, decides to re-invision her life, starting first with picking up essentials from a local bodega. Alone in a city of strangers, Walsh allows Darby to set up shop in Fluker without protecting her from the lonliness that comes with starting anew. Walsh is spot-on with his humor, beginning the story (and the collection) with the straightforward line, “The Bearded Lady had few other skills.” Darby is, indeed, out of her element. With one hundred dollars in her pocket, she finds a grocer that helps her buy toilet paper, meat, and a razor. The everyday becomes sensational for the carnival performer who, up until this time, has never needed such things.
Walsh allows his characters room to fail. Though they are quiet, proud characters, their history is often tangled in the excitement of the once-amazing traveling show. Darby’s fate is both sad and real. When starting over, Walsh shows us, it is not enough just to get your ducks in a row. More than anything, it is confusing and hard-nosed, think: fumbling around in the dark for the light switch. But Darby, on top of the fumbling, must also confront the social stigma of being a performer, which, as a former bearded lady, can be quite formidable and touching, even in the quietest of moments.
Finding a place in society takes center stage in “The Prospect of Magic,” the title story, where the Copper family is tasked with performing at a young boy’s birthday party. The father, whose stage name is Memphisto, is a precise man. He is the oldest of the family and the one still clinging to the traveling life. His children, displaying a typical generational frustration, see their father’s holding to the past as anachronistic. It is this reason they cannot stand to be around him as he drives to the birthday party performance in the family’s van. In this passage, Memphisto is accutely aware of his appearance and adjusts himself properly, an action not lost on his overtly-bored son, Matthew.
“The magician then catches his own reflection in the silver tinted windows of their conversion van
and leans in close to inspect it. He runs a licked finger along the hem of his tongue. He twists up the
ends of his eyebrows. “You think you are smart, yes?” he says. “But, which pocket, eh, Matthew? Do
you even know this? Which pocket does the rabbit go?”
“Sixteen, pop” Matthew says, and loads up the heaviest thing he will carry today, the oaken box
of hinges and mirrors designed to cut his mother in half.
Magic really does occur in this story. In order not to pull too much of the curtain back for the reader, I will say that when it does occur throughout this collection, my first reaction was, “Wait, did that just happen?” And the answer was always a resounding, “Yes.” With great skill, Walsh brings the supernatural to the plots of his stories much the way a ringleader might invite an audience member to put her head down under the elevated foot of a well-trained elephant. The reader understands that actual magic is possible in Fluker, but if it will be deadly or harrowing depends on how the elephant reacts to the crowd.
After arriving at the party, for which they are about to perform, it becomes clear that the young boy whose birthday it is has cancer. The Copper family’s magic show is a way for the young boy’s parents to keep their child’s mind off of dying. You’d think this would be enough for the Copper family’s performance to go off without a hitch—their comeback performance at a dying boy’s birthday party!—but, as in real life, not everything is lock and key. Like Darby, this family also has hurdles to cross on their new journey toward normalcy.
Idolizing and clinging to the past culminates subtly with Douglas Hubbard in “The Dream Tow.” An inventive story about a DNA testing machine that can chart a person’s potential in life. In this story, Douglas admits he has a hard time adapting to his new life in Fluker. With a simple, sad admission, Walsh gives us access into his character’s deep reticence when we see Douglas admit to his wife that his inability to play the trombone has caused him to “hit a wall in his life.”
The same sentiment is expressed in “The Plooftop Refugees,” a story where the narrator’s wife, Margo, gives a rousing eulogy at the funeral of the now-dead carnival ringleader. Margo’s eulogy emphasizes the idea of real freedom, the performer’s duty to be true to themselves in the word, and
…how their ringmaster’s death, right here in our little town was like destiny, because she could tell
that our town was different than most, and that people like her could walk the streets here in
acceptance. She said this was because our town would understand that people, when it’s all said and
done, just can’t help who they are.
There is a thread of longevity in these stories, of holding on to the past just one tiny step longer to see if once again the spark of performing might ignite. In “Nightrise,” washed-up car salesman, Denny, spots a girl walking toward him and recgnizes her from his past days as a carnival barker. She is Maddie and, through the strength of her “love-memory,” she has walked twenty-two days and nights to find him. Maddie’s walk to find Denny is a celestial one. Stars, planets, and even the bow of Sagittarius, make their way into each of Maddies’ footsteps. But, as Walsh wants us to realize, the past is not staked and roped to the ground. It is dug up and moved, leaving a terrible un-earthed hole. Maddie doesn’t find what she’s looking for, but we continue to hope that she might, because, as Walsh writes:
We need her to.
All of us still huddled here watching her.
All of us with our big, tired hearts.
We need to see it happen to someone.