Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Book Review: Circus of the Sun by J.Macon King


Circus of the Sun is a rollicking novel by J.Macon King, publisher of Mill Valley Literary Review. It begins:

Would she feel better knowing that it haunts me still? I didn't want to leave her. I had to. Yet, I betrayed her. Her final request to me, I refused. 

From the Haight Ashbury, the vast green expanse of Golden Gate Park stretches to the endless Pacific. San Francisco's ultraviolet spectrum had beckoned dreamers like me who were eager for a new life. Free of restrictions, boundaries and repressions--free of the past. I lived in the Haight, birthplace of 1960's hippies and Flower Power, where Peter Pans and Tinkerbells preserved Neverland in a patchwork community. (p. 3)

An intriguing story develops from there, with plenty of San Francisco-specific geographic and architectural descriptions that will delight those familiar with the city. Set in 1978-80 California, this is indeed "a Novel of San Francisco," as the subtitle indicates. It is written in memoir style, first person, as told by the protagonist Jack, who has been or is -- among other things -- a library burglar, porn actor, bookstore employee, drug dealer, motorcyclist, pinball fanatic, punk musician, martial artist, and circus worker. There are strong themes of abuse, violence, and suicide throughout, so let that be a trigger warning to those who need it.

But mostly, this is a love story gently woven into a memoir detailing Jack's personal history, with frequent sidebar flashbacks of his time growing up in a dysfunctional family situation that ended up causing him to run away -- literally -- and join the circus, where he learned valuable life lessons. Jack's love for Bretta is overwhelming at times, and King captures the ups and downs of an intense relationship deftly. There's plenty of sex, but it is handled maturely.

King's descriptions of the bar scene in San Francisco with Bretta and her "entourage" reminds me of Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans with its poetry-leaning prose and rich dialogue. Speaking of Jack Kerouac, I counted no less than 8 different references to Kerouac spanning pp. 43 to 267. In one scene, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Richard Brautigan make an appearance. In another, the author yearns for Jan Kerouac to return and become his "new soul mate."

There are plenty of cultural references, especially musical ones (as evidenced by the 2-page "discography" at the end). I caught a nod to Star Wars on p. 329: when an unwelcome bar patron is ejected, Jack waves his hand and whispers, "'This is not the bar you are looking for.'" Earlier in that scene Jack and Bretta learn of John Lennon's killing from Howard Cosell, who interrupted football coverage to announce the tragic event.

There's a twist at the end that I will mercifully not spoil, and a clue to the title is on p. 17, but you will need to get a copy and read Circus of the Sun to figure out the secret. And you will want to do that, as King's novel is engagingly honest and sets forth a story-within-a-memoir so skillfully that you forget this is a work of fiction (only sort of, I'm guessing). It is available on Amazon.

P.S. I met the author in 2013 at a Beat event at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley that I detailed HERE. Below is a picture of Mr. King reading at that event.

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