The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Martin Dressler comes a new collection of short stories that explore the magnificent obsessions of the unfettered imagination, as well as the darker, subterranean currents that fuel them.

With the panache of an old-fashioned magician, Steven Millhauser conducts his readers from the dark corners beneath the sunlit world to a balloonist's tour of the heavens. He transforms department stores and amusement parks into alternate universes of infinite ...

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Martin Dressler comes a new collection of short stories that explore the magnificent obsessions of the unfettered imagination, as well as the darker, subterranean currents that fuel them.

With the panache of an old-fashioned magician, Steven Millhauser conducts his readers from the dark corners beneath the sunlit world to a balloonist's tour of the heavens. He transforms department stores and amusement parks into alternate universes of infinite plentitude and menace. He unveils the secrets of a maker of automatons and a coven of teenage girls. And on every page of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, Millhauser confirms his stature as a narrative enchanter in the tradition of Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Tantalizing new stories.... Millhauser's ingenuity is delicious." —A. S. Byatt, The Washington Post Book World

"An American writer of surpassing skill.... [Millhauser] renders the impossible itself with precision." —Chicago Tribune

"As Gothic as Poe and as imaginative as Fantasia, Millhauser's deceptive fables are funny and warm. But they're dark as dungeons, too.... He bewitches you." —Entertainment Weekly
D. T. Max
Reading Steven Millhauser is like watching a three-year-old playing alone. There's the same sense of inventiveness, of total absorption in the small stage. The dolls, the trucks, the pirate ship. You can watch or you can go back to the grown-ups' conversation. The child doesn't much care.

Millhauser's last book, the novel Martin Dressler: the Story of an American Dreamer, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, providing this brilliant and idiosyncratic writer with some long-overdue recognition. This has not changed the arc of his preoccupations, however: He grows progressively less interested in the ordinary world. The power of each story is to be found in the anxiety we bring to its reading. Which of our rules still apply?

The title story of this new collection is the best, a sinuous Gothic fantasy in which a touring performer, Hensch, enters an unnamed town and asks for volunteers for his knife-throwing exhibition. There's been a hint that something unusual happens at these shows, the narrator protesting a bit too energetically that one goes for Hensch's skill, not to see the volunteers' blood. At the show Hensch first undertakes the usual tame skillful displays. Then his assistant asks for volunteers, anyone in the audience who wishes "to receive the mark of the master." Several townspeople come forward and are nicked. They sit down to applause. Finally, the woman asks for a volunteer who desires the master's "final mark." What really happens to Laura, "a tall mournful looking girl in jeans and a dark blouse" who comes forward? Like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," "The Knife Thrower" is propelled by the reader's reluctance to believe in a society in which the most important of the commandments is the one that's missing.

Another wonderful story is "The Way Out," a strange little tale reminiscent of the stories of Julio Cortázar. Harter, a lazy womanizer, and his lover are caught in the act by her husband. Briefly he is genuinely excited, thinking -- perhaps half hoping -- that the man will shoot him on the spot. Then he realizes, disappointed, that he is "going to get away with it." They come for him early one morning in a dreamlike sequence, carrying him off to a field where an old dueling pistol is placed in his hand and another pointed at him by the husband. The last thing he sees are "hundreds of yellow butterflies, beating their wings like mad."

The long story "Paradise Park" replicates the moral of "Martin Dressler." Mysterious Charles Sarabee begins by building an ordinary Coney Island amusement park. It's a hit. He tries to outdo it with an artistically perfect sequel, but the public rejects it. "It may be art, but is it fun?" the papers sneer. Enraged, he responds by introducing a new, more subversive tier, called Devil's Park, with "fun-house mirrors that show back naked bodies in obscene postures" and lover's leaps where real suicides take place. It's a hit, but ultimately a mysterious conflagration burns the park to the ground. The applicability of the metaphor to the artist who goes too far is evident.

But I prefer the story "The New Automation Theater," in which prodigy Heinrich Graum perfects the almost-human-looking automatons his unnamed town has long specialized in, then falls silent. What more is there for him to do? He returns a decade later with a new invention, automatons that look like automatons but that engage you anyway. The very power of his art is the consciousness of the artifice behind them. This seems to me closer to Millhauser's own story. His surpassing genius is his ability to involve us in worlds that don't exist but that are nonetheless real. -- Salon

Patrick McGrath
The author reveals "splendid flashes of absurdity and satire" and a "rich, sly sense of humor"
The New York Times Book Review
Entertainment Weekly
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author presents a collection of tantalizing stories "as Gothic as Poe and as imaginative as 'Fantasia'"
Library Journal
Millhauser, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Martin Dressler (LJ 4/15/96), shows his boundless imagination in this collection of surreal, fanciful, and dark-edged stories. Breaking the rules of short-story writing, half of the selections lack a central character and are instead narrated by a nameless "we." Though this may distance the reader, it gives insight into group consciousness, something rarely expressed so directly in fiction. We are also treated to Millhauser's elaborate descriptions of awe-inspiring, otherworldly amusement parks, department stores, and underground passageways. Even his more conventional stories give us flying carpets, duels, and two-foot frogs, and for this reason the book is perhaps best read in small doses, lest Millhauser's descriptions become overwhelming. Unique and always fascinating; essential for academic and larger public libraries.Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow
Patrick McGrath
Dreamers, inventors, artists, moguls, illusionists -- creators of all sorts are the citizens of Millhauser's fictional worlds, and they all go too far....His latest, a collection of stories called "The Knife Thrower," offers a number of fine new twists and permutations, plus some splendid flashes of absurdity and satire. Millhauser has a rich, sly sense of humor, and the tone of whimsy in much of his work conceals disturbing subversive energies. -- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Twelve mesmerizing tales about the subterranean forces of artistic creation, and about the eruption of the uncanny into quotidian life, by one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive modern American writers. Millhauser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Martin Dressler (1998), typically works a narrow but deep terrain, focusing on such things as the allure of various kinds of underworld, the lives of obsessed artists, the shimmering mysteries of the natural world. All are present in this new collection. The title story examines what happens when a performer possessing almost supernatural skill in his craft feels driven by his own need to excel and by the desires of his audiences—to transgress, using his knives to explore the boundary between art and life, with fatal consequences. Art, Millhauser reminds us, is necessary (the knife thrower's audiences crave his performances), but also necessarily dangerous. "Paradise Park" offers another version of the creator an transgressor, represented by the astonishing efforts of a designer of a turn-of-the-century amusement park on Coney Island to outdo his rivals, culminating in the creation of a vast underground park more like purgatory than paradise, challenging its audiences ideas about what art and technology should do. Several of the tales here, including "Flying Carpets," "The Sisterhood of Night," and "Clair de Lune," issue from Millhauser's fascination with the special receptivity that children and adolescents demonstrate for the mysterious potentials of life, for sensing the sheer strangeness behind the everyday. "Balloon Flight, 1870" mingles metaphysics with the traditional elements of an adventure tale, and "A Visit"offers an ironic reworking of an old folklore motif, involving the marriage of a man and an animal. Enchanting, often disturbing tales, written in a prose of deceptive simplicity, providing further evidence that Millhauser is a fabulist of rare power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679781639
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 963,846
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Millhauser received the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler. He is the author of Edwin Mullhouse, The Barnum Museum, and In the Penny Arcade, among other books. He lives with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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Table of Contents

The Knife Thrower 7
A Visit 25
The Sisterhood of Night 45
The Way Out 63
Flying Carpets 89
The New Automaton Theater 103
Clair de Lune 129
The Dream of the Consortium 143
Balloon Flight, 1870 165
Paradise Park 181
Kaspar Hauser Speaks 225
Beneath the Cellars of Our Town 237
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First Chapter


CHAPTER ONE

WHEN WE LEARNED that Hensch, the knife thrower, was stopping at our town for a single performance at eight o'clock on Saturday night, we hesitated, wondering what we felt. Hensch, the knife thrower! Did we feel like clapping our hands for joy, like leaping to our feet and bursting into smiles of anticipation? Or did we, after all, want to tighten our lips and look away in stern disapproval? That was Hensch for you. For if Hensch was an acknowledged master of his art, that difficult and faintly unsavory art about which we knew very little, it was also true that he bore with him certain disturbing rumors, which we reproached ourselves for having failed to heed sufficiently when they appeared from time to time in the arts section of the Sunday paper.

    Hensch, the knife thrower! Of course we knew his name. Everyone knew his name, as one knows the name of a famous chess player or magician. What we couldn't be sure of was what he actually did. Dimly we recalled that the skill of his throwing had brought him early attention, but that it wasn't until he had changed the rules entirely that he was taken up in a serious way. He had stepped boldly, some said recklessly, over the line never before crossed by knife throwers, and had managed to make a reputation out of a disreputable thing. Some of us seemed to recall reading that in his early carnival days he had wounded an assistant badly; after a six-month retirement he had returned with his new act. It was here that he had introduced into the chaste discipline of knife throwing the idea of the artful wound, the mark of blood that was the mark of the master. We had even heard that among his followers there were many, young women especially, who longed to be wounded by the master and to bear his scar proudly. If rumors of this kind were disturbing to us, if they prevented us from celebrating Hensch's arrival with innocent delight, we nevertheless acknowledged that without such dubious enticements we'd have been unlikely to attend the performance at all, since the art of knife throwing, for all its apparent danger, is really a tame art, an outmoded art--little more than a quaint old-fashioned amusement in these times of ours. The only knife throwers any of us had ever seen were in the circus sideshow or the carnival ten-in-one, along with the fat lady and the human skeleton. It must, we imagined, have galled Hensch to feel himself a freak among freaks; he must have needed a way out. For wasn't he an artist, in his fashion? And so we admired his daring, even as we deplored his method and despised him as a vulgar showman; we questioned the rumors, tried to recall what we knew of him, interrogated ourselves relentlessly. Some of us dreamed of him: a monkey of a man in checked pants and a red hat, a stern officer in glistening boots. The promotional mailings showed only a knife held by a gloved hand. Is it surprising we didn't know what to feel?

    At eight o'clock precisely, Hensch walked onto the stage: a brisk unsmiling man in black tails. His entrance surprised us. For although most of us had been seated since half-past seven, others were still arriving, moving down the aisles, pushing past half-turned knees into squeaking seats. In fact we were so accustomed to delays for latecomers that an 8:00 performance was understood to mean one that began at 8:10 or even 8:15. As Hensch strode across the stage, a busy no-nonsense man, black-haired and top-bald, we didn't know whether we admired him for his supreme indifference to our noises of settling in, or disliked him for his refusal to countenance the slightest delay. He walked quickly across the stage to a waist-high table on which rested a mahogany box. He wore no gloves. At the opposite corner of the stage, in the rear, a black wooden partition bisected the stage walls. Hensch stepped behind his box and opened it to reveal a glitter of knives. At this moment a woman in a loose-flowing white gown stepped in front of the dark partition. Her pale hair was pulled tightly back and she carried a silver bowl.

    While the latecomers among us whispered their way past knees and coats, and slipped guiltily into their seats, the woman faced us and reached into her bowl. From it she removed a white hoop about the size of a dinner plate. She held it up and turned it from side to side, as if for our inspection, while Hensch lifted from his box half a dozen knives. Then he stepped to the side of the table. He held the six knives fanwise in his left hand, with the blades pointing up. The knives were about a foot long, the blades shaped like elongated diamonds, and as he stood there at the side of the stage, a man with no expression on his face, a man with nothing to do, Hensch had the vacant and slightly bored look of an overgrown boy holding in one hand an awkward present, waiting patiently for someone to open a door.

    With a gentle motion the woman in the white gown tossed the hoop lightly in the air in front of the black wooden partition. Suddenly a knife sank deep into the soft wood, catching the hoop, which hung swinging on the handle. Before we could decide whether or not to applaud, the woman tossed another white hoop. Hensch lifted and threw in a single swift smooth motion, and the second hoop hung swinging from the second knife. After the third hoop rose in the air and hung suddenly on a knife handle, the woman reached into her bowl and held up for our inspection a smaller hoop, the size of a saucer. Hensch raised a knife and caught the flying hoop cleanly against the wood. She next tossed two small hoops one after the other, which Hensch caught in two swift motions: the first at the top of its trajectory, the second near the middle of the partition.

    We watched Hensch as he picked up three more knives and spread them fanwise in his left hand. He stood staring at his assistant with fierce attention, his back straight, his thick hand resting by his side. When she tossed three small hoops, one after the other, we saw his body tighten, we waited for the thunk-thunk-thunk of knives in wood, but he stood immobile, sternly gazing. The hoops struck the floor, bounced slightly, and began rolling like big dropped coins across the stage. Hadn't he liked the throw? We felt like looking away, like pretending we hadn't noticed. Nimbly the assistant gathered the rolling hoops, then assumed her position by the black wall. She seemed to take a deep breath before she tossed again. This time Hensch flung his three knives with extraordinary speed, and suddenly we saw all three hoops swinging on the partition, the last mere inches from the floor. She motioned grandly toward Hensch, who did not bow; we burst into vigorous applause.

    Again the woman in the white gown reached into her bowl, and this time she held up something between her thumb and forefinger that even those of us in the first rows could not immediately make out. She stepped forward, and many of us recognized, between her fingers, an orange and black butterfly. She returned to the partition and looked at Hensch, who had already chosen his knife. With a gentle tossing gesture she released the butterfly. We burst into applause as the knife drove the butterfly against the wood, where those in the front rows could see the wings helplessly beating.

    That was something we hadn't seen before, or even imagined we might see, something worth remembering; and as we applauded we tried to recall the knife throwers of our childhood, the smell of sawdust and cotton candy, the glittering woman on the turning wheel.

    Now the woman in white removed the knives from the black partition and carried them across the stage to Hensch, who examined each one closely and wiped it with a cloth before returning it to his box.

    Abruptly, Hensch strode to the center of the stage and turned to face us. His assistant pushed the table with its box of knives to his side. She left the stage and returned pushing a second table, which she placed at his other side. She stepped away, into half-darkness, while the lights shone directly on Hensch and his tables. We saw him place his left hand palm up on the empty tabletop. With his right hand he removed a knife from the box on the first table. Suddenly, without looking, he tossed the knife straight up into the air. We saw it rise to its rest and come hurtling down. Someone cried out as it struck his palm, but Hensch raised his hand from the table and held it up for us to see, turning it first one way and then the other: the knife had struck between the fingers. Hensch lowered his hand over the knife so that the blade stuck up between his second and third fingers. He tossed three more knives into the air, one after the other: rat-tat-tat they struck the table. From the shadows the woman in white stepped forward and tipped the table toward us, so that we could see the four knives sticking between his fingers.

    Oh, we admired Hensch, we were taken with the man's fine daring; and yet, as we pounded out our applause, we felt a little restless, a little dissatisfied, as if some unspoken promise had failed to be kept. For hadn't we been a trifle ashamed of ourselves for attending the performance, hadn't we deplored in advance his unsavory antics, his questionable crossing of the line?

    As if in answer to our secret impatience, Hensch strode decisively to his corner of the stage. Quickly the pale-haired assistant followed, pushing the table after him. She next shifted the second table to the back of the stage and returned to the black partition. She stood with her back against it, gazing across the stage at Hensch, her loose white gown hanging from thin shoulder straps that had slipped down to her upper arms. At that moment we felt in our arms and along our backs a first faint flutter of anxious excitement, for there they stood before us, the dark master and the pale maiden, like figures in a dream from which we were trying to awake.

    Hensch chose a knife and raised it beside his head with deliberation; we realized that he had worked very quickly before. With a swift sharp drop of his forearm, as if he were chopping a piece of wood, he released the knife. At first we thought he had struck her upper arm, but we saw that the blade had sunk into the wood and lay touching her skin. A second knife struck beside her other upper arm. She began to wriggle both shoulders, as if to free herself from the tickling knives, and only as her loose gown came rippling down did we realize that the knives had cut the shoulder straps. Hensch had us now, he had us. Long-legged and smiling, she stepped from the fallen gown and stood before the black partition in a spangled silver leotard. We thought of tightrope walkers, bareback riders, hot circus tents on blue summer days. The pale yellow hair, the spangled cloth, the pale skin touched here and there with shadow, all this gave her the remote, enclosed look of a work of art, while at the same time it lent her a kind of cool voluptuousness, for the metallic glitter of her costume seemed to draw attention to the bareness of her skin, disturbingly unhidden, dangerously white and cool and soft.

    Quickly the glittering assistant stepped to the second table at the back of the stage and removed something from the drawer. She returned to the center of the wooden partition and placed on her head a red apple. The apple was so red and shiny that it looked as if it had been painted with nail polish. We looked at Hensch, who stared at her and held himself very still. In a single motion Hensch lifted and threw. She stepped out from under the red apple stuck in the wood.

    From the table she removed a second apple and clenched the stem with her teeth. At the black partition she bent slowly backward until the bright red apple was above her upturned lips. We could see the column of her trachea pressing against the skin of her throat and the knobs of her hips pushing up against the silver spangles. Hensch took careful aim and flung the knife through the heart of the apple.

    Next from the table she removed a pair of long white gloves, which she pulled on slowly, turning her wrists, tugging. She held up each tight-gloved hand in turn and wriggled the fingers. At the partition she stood with her arms out and her fingers spread. Hensch looked at her, then raised a knife and threw; it stuck into her fingertip, the middle fingertip of her right hand, pinning her to the black wall. The woman stared straight ahead. Hensch picked up a clutch of knives and held them fanwise in his left hand. Swiftly he flung nine knives, one after the other, and as they struck her fingertips, one after the other, bottom to top, right-left right-left, we stirred uncomfortably in our seats. In the sudden silence she stood there with her arms outspread and her fingers full of knives, her silver spangles flashing, her white gloves whiter than her pale arms, looking as if at any moment her head would drop forward--looking for all the world like a martyr on a cross. Then slowly, gently, she pulled each hand from its glove, leaving the gloves hanging on the wall.

    Now Hensch gave a sharp wave of his fingers, as if to dismiss everything that had gone before, and to our surprise the woman stepped forward to the edge of the stage, and addressed us for the first time.

    "I must ask you," she said gently, "to be very quiet, because this next act is very dangerous. The master will mark me. Please do not make a sound. We thank you."

    She returned to the black partition and simply stood there, her shoulders back, her arms down but pressed against the wood. She gazed steadily at Hensch, who seemed to be studying her; some of us said later that at this moment she gave the impression of a child who was about to be struck in the face, though others felt she looked calm, quite calm.

    Hensch chose a knife from his box, held it for a moment, then raised his arm and threw. The knife struck beside her neck. He had missed--had he missed?--and we felt a sharp tug of disappointment, which changed at once to shame, deep shame, for we hadn't come out for blood, only for--well, something else; and as we asked ourselves what we had come for, we were surprised to see her reach up with one hand and pull out the knife. Then we saw, on her neck, the thin red trickle, which ran down to her shoulder; and we understood that her whiteness had been arranged for this moment. Long and loud we applauded, as she bowed and held aloft the glittering knife, assuring us, in that way, that she was wounded but well, or well-wounded; and we didn't know whether we were applauding her wellness or her wound, or the touch of the master, who had crossed the line, who had carried us, safely, it appeared, into the realm of forbidden things.

    Even as we applauded she turned and left the stage, returning a few moments later in a long black dress with long sleeves and a high collar, which concealed her wound. We imagined the white bandage under the black collar; we imagined other bandages, other wounds, on her hips, her waist, the edges of her breasts. Black against black they stood there, she and he, bound now it seemed in a dark pact, as if she were his twin sister, or as if both were on the same side in a game we were all playing, a game we no longer understood; and indeed she looked older in her black dress, sterner, a schoolmarm or maiden aunt. We were not surprised when she stepped forward to address us again.

    "If any of you, in the audience, wish to be marked by the master, to receive the mark of the master, now is the time. Is there anyone.?"

    We all looked around. A single hand rose hesitantly and was instantly lowered. Another hand went up; then there were other hands, young bodies straining forward, eager; and from the stage the woman in black descended and walked slowly along an aisle, looking closely, considering, until she stopped and pointed: "You." And we knew her, Susan Parker, a high school girl, who might have been our daughter, sitting there with her face turned questioningly toward the woman, her eyebrows slightly raised, as she pointed to herself; then the faint flush of realization; and as she climbed the steps of the stage we watched her closely, wondering what the dark woman had seen in her, to make her be the one, wondering too what she was thinking, Susan Parker, as she followed the dark woman to the wooden partition. She was wearing loose jeans and a tight black short-sleeved sweater; her reddish-brown and faintly shiny hair was cut short. Was it for her white skin she had been chosen? or some air of self-possession? We wanted to cry out: sit down! you don't have to do this! but we remained silent, respectful. Hensch stood at his table, watching without expression. It occurred to us that we trusted him at this moment; we clung to him; he was all we had; for if we weren't absolutely sure of him, then who were we, what on earth were we, who had allowed things to come to such a pass?

    The woman in black led Susan Parker to the wooden partition and arranged her there: back to the wood, shoulders straight. We saw her run her hand gently, as if tenderly, over the girl's short hair, which lifted and fell back in place. Then taking Susan Parker's right hand in hers, she stepped to the girl's right, so that the entire arm was extended against the black partition. She stood holding Susan Parker's raised hand, gazing at the girl's face--comforting her, it seemed; and we observed that Susan Parker's arm looked very white between the black sweater and the black dress, against the black wood of the partition. As the women gazed at each other, Hensch lifted a knife and threw. We heard the muffled bang of the blade, heard Susan Parker's sharp little gasp, saw her other hand clench into a fist. Quickly the dark woman stepped in front of her and pulled out the knife; and turning to us she lifted Susan Parker's arm, and displayed for us a streak of red on the pate forearm. Then she reached into a pocket of her black dress and removed a small tin box. From the box came a ball of cotton, a patch of gauze, and a roll of white surgical tape, with which she swiftly bound the wound. "There, dear," we heard her say. "You were very brave." We watched Susan Parker walk with lowered eyes across the stage, holding her bandaged arm a little away from her body; and as we began to clap, because she was still there, because she had come through, we saw her raise her eyes and give a quick shy smile, before lowering her lashes and descending the steps.

    Now arms rose, seats creaked, there was a great rustling and whispering among us, for others were eager to be chosen, to be marked by the master, and once again the woman in black stepped forward to speak.

    "Thank you, dear. You were very brave, and now you will bear the mark of the master. You will treasure it all your days. But it is a light mark, do you know, a very light mark. The master can mark more deeply, far more deeply. But for that you must show yourself worthy. Some of you may already be worthy, but I will ask you now to lower your hands, please, for I have with me someone who is ready to be marked. And please, all of you, I ask for your silence."

    From the right of the stage stepped forth a young man who might have been fifteen or sixteen. He was dressed in black pants and a black shirt and wore rimless glasses that caught the light. He carried himself with ease, and we saw that he had a kind of lanky and slightly awkward beauty, the beauty, we thought, of a waterbird, a heron. The woman led him to the wooden partition and indicated that he should stand with his back against it. She walked to the table at the rear of the stage and removed an object, which she carried back to the partition. Raising the boy's left arm, so that it was extended straight out against the wall at the level of his shoulder, she lifted the object to his wrist and began fastening it into the wood. It appeared to be a clamp, which held his arm in place at the wrist. She then arranged his hand: palm facing us, fingers together. Stepping away, she looked at him thoughtfully. Then she stepped over to his free side, took his other hand, and held it gently.

    The stage lights went dark, then a reddish spotlight shone on Hensch at his box of knives. A second light, white as moonlight, shone on the boy and his extended arm. The other side of the boy remained in darkness.

    Even as the performance seemed to taunt us with the promise of danger, of a disturbing turn that should not be permitted, or even imagined, we reminded ourselves that the master had so far done nothing but scratch a bit of skin, that his act was after all public and well traveled, that the boy appeared calm; and though we disapproved of the exaggerated effect of the lighting, the crude melodrama of it all, we secretly admired the skill with which the performance played on our fears. What it was we feared, exactly, we didn't know, couldn't say. But there was the knife thrower bathed in blood-light, there was the pale victim manacled to a wall; in the shadows the dark woman; and in the glare of the lighting, in the silence, in the very rhythm of the evening, the promise of entering a dark dream.

    And Hensch took up a knife and threw; some heard the sharp gasp of the boy, others a thin cry. In the whiteness of the light we saw the knife handle at the center of his bloody palm. Some said that at the moment the knife struck, the boy's shocked face shone with an intense, almost painful joy. The white light suddenly illuminated the woman in black, who raised his free arm high, as if in triumph; then she quickly set to work pulling out the blade, wrapping the palm in strips of gauze, wiping the boy's drained and sweating face with a cloth, and leading him off the stage with an arm firmly around his waist. No one made a sound. We looked at Hensch, who was gazing after his assistant.

    When she came back, alone, she stepped forward to address us, while the stage lights returned to normal.

    "You are a brave boy, Thomas. You will not soon forget this day. And now I must say that we have time for only one more event, this evening. Many of you here, I know, would like to receive the palm mark, as Thomas did. But I am asking something different now. Is there anyone in this audience tonight who would like to make"--and here she paused, not hesitantly, but as if in emphasis--"the ultimate sacrifice? This is the final mark, the mark that can be received only once. Please think it over carefully, before raising your hand."

    We wanted her to say more, to explain clearly what it was she meant by those riddling words, which came to us as though whispered in our ears, in the dark, words that seemed to mock us even as they eluded us--and we looked about tensely, almost eagerly, as if by the sheer effort of our looking we were asserting our vigilance. We saw no hands, and maybe it was true that at the very center of our relief there was a touch of disappointment, but it was relief nonetheless; and if the entire performance had seemed to be leading toward some overwhelming moment that was no longer to take place, still we had been entertained by our knife thrower, had we not, we had been carried a long way, so that even as we questioned his cruel art we were ready to offer our applause.

    "If there are no hands," she said, looking at us sharply, as if to see what it was we were secretly thinking, while we, as if to avoid her gaze, looked rapidly all about. "Oh: yes?" We saw it too, the partly raised hand, which perhaps had always been there, unseen in the half-darkened seats, and we saw the stranger rise, and begin to make her way slowly past drawn-in knees and pulled-back coats and half-risen forms. We watched her climb the steps of the stage, a tall mournful-looking girl in jeans and a dark blouse, with lank long hair and slouched shoulders. "And what is your name?" the woman in black said gently, and we could not hear the answer. "Well then, Laura. And so you are prepared to receive the final mark? Then you must be very brave." And turning to us she said, "I must ask you, please, to remain absolutely silent."

    She led the girl to the black wooden partition and arranged her there, unconfined: chin up, hands hanging awkwardly at her sides. The dark woman stepped back and appeared to assess her arrangement, after which she crossed to the back of the stage. At this point some of us had confused thoughts of calling out, of demanding an explanation, but we didn't know what it was we might be protesting, and in any case the thought of distracting Hensch's throw, of perhaps causing an injury, was repellent to us, for we saw that already he had selected a knife. It was a new kind of knife, or so we thought, a longer and thinner knife. And it seemed to us that things were happening too quickly, up there on the stage, for where was the spotlight, where was the drama of a sudden darkening, but Hensch, even as we wondered, did what he always did--he threw his knife. Some of us heard the girl cry out, others were struck by her silence, but what stayed with all of us was the absence of the sound of the knife striking wood. Instead there was a softer sound, a more disturbing sound, a sound almost like silence, and some said the girl looked down, as if in surprise. Others claimed to see in her face, in the expression of her eyes, a look of rapture. As she fell to the floor the dark woman stepped forward and swept her arm toward the knife thrower, who for the first time turned to acknowledge us. And now he bowed: a deep, slow, graceful bow, the bow of a master, down to his knees. Slowly the dark red curtain began to fall. Overhead the lights came on.

    As we left the theater we agreed that it had been a skillful performance, though we couldn't help feeling that the knife thrower had gone too far. He had justified his reputation, of that there could be no question; without ever trying to ingratiate himself with us, he had continually seized our deepest attention. But for all that, we couldn't help feeling that he ought to have found some other way. Of course the final act had probably been a setup, the girl had probably leaped smiling to her feet as soon as the curtain closed, though some of us recalled unpleasant rumors of one kind or another, run-ins with the police, charges and countercharges, a murky business. In any case we reminded ourselves that she hadn't been coerced in any way, none of them had been coerced in any way. And it was certainly true that a man in Hensch's position had every right to improve his art, to dream up new acts with which to pique curiosity, indeed such advances were absolutely necessary, for without them a knife thrower could never hope to keep himself in the public eye. Like the rest of us, he had to earn his living, which admittedly wasn't easy in times like these. But when all was said and done, when the pros and cons were weighed, and every issue carefully considered, we couldn't help feeling that the knife thrower had really gone too far. After all, if such performances were encouraged, if they were even tolerated, what might we expect in the future? Would any of us be safe? The more we thought about it, the more uneasy we became, and in the nights that followed, when we woke from troubling dreams, we remembered the traveling knife thrower with agitation and dismay.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2002

    From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary

    Steven Millhauser, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his wonderful period novel, Martin Dressler, is an author who is strikingly different from his contemporaries. The Knife Thrower is pure Millhauser and in this collection of stories he once again looks at almost everything except ordinary, earthbound, twentieth-century American life. Even those stories that do have a mundane, contemporary setting, such as The Dream of the Consortium, also contain something of the mysterious as well. In this story, an ordinary shopping mall becomes a world of Moorish courtyards and Aztec pyramids. In The Sisterhood of the Night, a secret society of girls, not so unusual in itself, manages to encompass the mysterious when the girls slip out of their homes to indulge in nothing more than silence. In Clair de Lune, a boy finds himself at a baseball game. But this is a nocturnal baseball game, played by girls who are dressed as boys. Flying Carpets is a fascinating story that details both the joys and the problems inherent in that particular mode of travel. At first glance, Millhauser's stories might appear to be little more than surreal melodramas, stories that definitely have virtues but stories that also cause the reader to give up in despair. This, however, is certainly not the case. Millhauser, like Kafka, draws us effortlessly into the shimmering worlds of his imagination through his poignant and expert use of detail and the elegance and beauty of his poetic prose. In five of these twelve stories, Millhauser uses the first person plural to wonderful effect and effectively allows his narrators to speak, not only for themselves, but for their community as well. The title story, one of the collection's best, centers around a knife thrower named Hensch and the single performance given by Hensch and his assistant which involves a series of increasingly dangerous tricks. Like the audience, we remain uncertain about what it is we really witness as the story draws to a surprising close. Those already familiar with Millhauser's work will be reminded of his gorgeous story, Einsenheim the Illusionist which also follows the path from ordinary to extraordinary. Other stories in this fascinating collection also bear a debt to Millhauser's earlier work, most notably The New Automaton Theater which is reminiscent of Millhauser's novella, August Eschenburg. Both offer a biography of a master automaton maker. While August Eschenberg finds himself trumped by a fellow creator, the central character in The New Automaton Theater, Heinrich Graum, stops work at the height of his success and remains silent for a period of a dozen years. When Graum finally does return to the theater he finds something very surprising and disturbing has happened to his work. Although the first person plural seems to dominate these stories, some of the most vivid and intimate are written in the first person singular. In, A Visit, the narrator goes to see an old friend in a remote town and finds that he is married, quite happily, to a very large frog. As implausible as this story sounds, it becomes quite believable, mostly due to Millhauser's extraordinary talent for visual detail. No Way Out is the sometimes humorous story, reminiscent of South American writer Julio Cortazar, in which a man learns the dubious distinction of honor versus dishonor. Balloon Flight, 1870 is an account of an attempt to escape occupied Paris in a balloon. The narrator is at first exhilarated by his new perspective of the world from the air, but as the balloon ascends to 10,000 feet, he begins to experience dread, instead. Like the narrator of Balloon Flight, 1870, Millhauser is an author whose protagonists are always seeking escape, by ascending into the air or burrowing into the earth or perfecting their art, e.g., knife throwing. Sometimes these protagonists go too far, but in their struggles between the real and the surreal, art and life, they help to shed light

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 28, 2010

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    Posted April 16, 2014

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