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Lives of the Circus Animals: A Novel

Lives of the Circus Animals: A Novel

by Christopher Bram

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Lives of the Circus Animals is a brilliant new comedy about New York theater people: actors, writers, personal assistants, and a drama critic for the New York Times. They are male, female, straight, gay, in love with their work or in love with each other, and one of them, British star Henry Lewse, "the Hamlet of his generation," is famous.



Lives of the Circus Animals is a brilliant new comedy about New York theater people: actors, writers, personal assistants, and a drama critic for the New York Times. They are male, female, straight, gay, in love with their work or in love with each other, and one of them, British star Henry Lewse, "the Hamlet of his generation," is famous.

Award-winning novelist Christopher Bram gives us ten days and nights in this small-town world in the heart of a big city, an engaging novel that is also a satiric celebration of the quest for sanity in the face of those two impostors, success and failure.

Editorial Reviews

Gay City News
“Deliciously funny.”
Detroit Free Press
“[A] sexy, witty novel”
New York Times Book Review
“Very cleverly done…hilarious…well-paced, sexy…and deeply steeped in the traditions and personalities of the theatrical world.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A biting comedy of manners…lively, useful, whip–smart.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
From the author of The Notorious Dr. August and Father of Frankenstein comes this polished, penetrating, and very funny novel that skewers the New York theater scene and illuminates the contrast of gay and straight lifestyles.

Playwright Caleb Doyle suffers through deep-set writer's block, even as his sister Jessie finds success as the assistant to British actor Henry Lewse, the openly gay star of a ludicrous Broadway musical. As Henry dotes on the handsome but dull-witted Toby Vogler, Toby pines for Caleb. Jessie has her own problems as the love object of director Frank Earp, whose floundering career has reduced him to staging children's plays off-off-off-Broadway. The secrets and heartaches of these many unfulfilled romances, unions, and associations unfold during the course of Caleb's bizarre birthday bash, where his pistol-packin' grandma causes even more mayhem.

The heavy themes of AIDS, sexual addiction, and unrequited love are expertly blended into the mix of slick humor and satire. Bram skillfully weaves together all the outlandish characters and their even more eccentric affairs, showing how all of them have a love-hate relationship with the theater, with each other, and with their own creative impulses. At turns graceful, shrewd, and ribald, Lives of the Circus Animals is terrific entertainment, steeped in the authentic details of theater life. This talented author's laugh-out-loud dialogue, burlesque situations, and shrewd insight into the vagaries of love are sure to win him an even more extensive readership. Tom Piccirilli

The New York Times
… it's well paced, sexy (both gay and straight) and deeply steeped in the traditions and personalities of the theatrical world. Lewse in particular is a fully realized creation, charmingly stepping on everyone's toes in the process of getting where he wants. — Jesse Green
Publishers Weekly
Clever stage satire and compassionate character writing distinguish this heady, humorous New York theater novel by the author of The Notorious Mr. August and Father of Frankenstein (which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Gods and Monsters). The title (a Yeats reference) effectively conveys the fondness and gentle derision with which Bram presents his ensemble cast. Henry Lewse is a prominent British actor starring in a musical, but preoccupied with sex. His latest find is Toby Vogler, a good-looking, not terribly bright young man, honored to have the attention of a star, but too earnest to provide full satisfaction ("Why am I such bad sex?" he sobs). Toby is longing for Caleb Doyle, a playwright whose first stage success was followed by the immediate and ignominious failure of his second. Caleb's sister, Jessica, is also a theater enthusiast and works as Henry's assistant. She is loved by Frank Earp, a rather bedraggled director who has come to terms with the limits of his career, directing schoolchildren and off-off-off-Broadway plays (his current show is staged in an apartment). Presiding gloomily over the rest of the cast is Kenneth Prager ("The Buzzard of Off-Broadway"), the Times reviewer who shot down Caleb's play. After much acting, gossip, psychoanalysis and sex (mostly inept), all come together at Caleb's big-finale birthday party. As he proved in Father of Frankenstein, Bram has a sophisticated understanding of celebrity and the intersection of gay and straight worlds. His savvy-and his easy familiarity with the New York theater scene-gives edge and nuance to this witty entertainment. Agent, Edward Hibbert. (Oct. 1) Forecast: After his sweeping historical novel The Notorious Dr. August, Bram returns to a smaller canvas. Fans of Father of Frankenstein (and Gods and Monsters) will be pleased, as will Waugh and Wodehouse readers who recognize the British comedy of manners lurking inside this American theater satire. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bram (The Notorious Dr. August) has crafted a complex story about the lives of theater people, the "circus animals" of the title. Within the New York setting, theater happens at all levels, from children's school plays to Broadway musicals to avant-garde off off Broadway. Henry Lewse is a British actor starring in a Broadway musical. Jessie Doyle is his much-needed personal assistant. Her brother, Caleb, is a playwright whose latest play was shredded by theater critic Kenneth Prager. Frank, Jessie's new boyfriend, is directing a reality play in Apartment 2B. Toby, Caleb's former lover, is trying hard to break into show biz. In a supreme comedy of errors, all these characters come together with Jessie and Caleb's mom at Caleb's birthday party. When Kenneth Prager sits next to Mom Doyle, thinking it the safest place in the room, he gets the shock of his life. The well-drawn characters run the gamut of the human condition, and the story encompasses all the joys and sorrows of everyday life, revealing that circus animals are much like the rest of us. Recommended.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Ashaway, RI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Straight and gay lives share the stage in a good-natured Broadway valentine refreshingly free of theatrical excess. Anyone whose misbegotten past includes time on or around the boards will recognize the loving accuracy Bram (The Notorious Dr. August, 2000, etc.) brings to his often hilarious take on love spurned, mismatched, and rearranged on and way-off Broadway. The tales are hung on the lives of playwright Caleb Doyle and his sister Jessie. Caleb has not recovered from the loss of his lover to AIDS and is seriously blocked following the savaging in the New York Times of his last play. Jessie cannot bring herself to return the love of Frank Earp, an administrative assistant whose theatrical passions have been channeled to freelance directing. Jessie, who loves the theater but lacks a role, has found work managing the life of distinguished, openly gay, middle-aged British actor Henry Lewse (readers may supply their own models), who is happily making big bucks in a typically dumb and successful musical remake of a screwball comedy film. Lewse, who steals every scene he's in, has, through the miracle of commercial phone sex, stumbled into the fantasies of Caleb Doyle and, through believable coincidence (theater's a very small world) the ambitions of Caleb's beautiful, thick, actor ex-boyfriend Toby Vogler, who, if he only had a few emotions to remember, just might have a future. All of these characters have, one way or another, come into contact with Kenneth Prager, the second-string Times critic who shot down Caleb's play and who has been assigned a story on Henry Lewse. With the smooth machinations of a Feydeau farce, the progresses, regressions, and couplings lead steadily to Caleb'sbig birthday party in the penthouse he may have to sell if he can't get a good play going. Among his guests will be his little Irish Catholic police widow mum packing heat. Slick, smart, and funny.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Lives of the Circus Animals
A Novel

Chapter One

"You want strangers to love you?"

There was another long pause. "No," he said. "I just don't want them to hate me."

"And who do you think hates you, Kenneth?"

"Oh, everyone."

She laughed, much to his surprise. Her laughter was thin and professional, but not unfriendly.

"I'm joking, of course. Most people don't know me from the man in the moon. And it's not real hate. Not really. Even from people who do know me. It's fun hate. Faux hate. I'm the man-they-love-to-hate." He sighed. "Oh, all right. Yes. It does get to me. Sometimes."

"Of course," said Dr. Chin. "We'd all rather be loved."

She sat in an armchair, a mild, round-faced woman in a ruffled blouse, under a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a skull in a desert.

Kenneth Prager sat on the sofa -- the far end of the sofa -- tall and lean in a charcoal gray suit. This was his first time in therapy, his second session. Forty-four years old, he had managed to avoid this rite of passage until now. He was not enjoying it. Not only did Chin expect him to do most of the talking, but she also refused to let him have the last word. His livelihood was built on having the last word.

He took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "They call me the Buzzard of Off-Broadway."

This time she didn't laugh but looked concerned, even hurt, for his sake. "And how does that make you feel?"

"Oh, I was flattered. At first. All right, somewhat miffed. A predecessor was called the Butcher of Broadway, so it's old material. When you get mocked, you want the jokes to be more original."

She wrote something on her notepad. He feared his flippancy revealed more than he knew.

"But that's not the cause of my depression," he said. "If it is depression. I don't feel guilty about my work. My caring what people think is just a symptom, not a cause."

Therapy was his wife's idea. Gretchen had grown tired of his glum spirits, his sour sorrow. He couldn't understand his unhappiness either. His life could not be better. He had a loving wife, a pretty daughter, a good job, even a dash of fame. He was only second critic at the Times, but strangers recognized his name if not his face. He should be happy. But he wasn't. This failure of happiness worried him. If the achievement of so much in life could not make one happy, then why bother living?

"I love my work," he insisted. "I've always loved theater. The immediacy of it. Real human presences. I enjoyed reviewing movies well enough, which I did for three years. But I was only third-stringer there and saw too much trash: horror-slasher-teen pics and such. So I was overjoyed when they moved me to drama. Where I'd always wanted to be. The unease didn't set in until after New Year's. I thought it'd pass, or I'd get used to the strangeness, but the strangeness only got stranger. Back in March, Bickle, the first reviewer, went into the hospital for heart surgery. So a few plums fell into my lap, including the big new Disney bomb, Pollyanna. Everyone panned it, not just me. We were all surprised when Disney pulled the plug. Nevertheless, I was the one who got congratulated for killing the beast. Which felt odd. Then there was a new play by the author of Venus in Furs. Everyone wanted it to be good. I know I did. But it wasn't. It was called Chaos Theory and was about madness and mathematics. I think it was really about AIDS -- the author is gay -- which I said in my review. But it was just so self-indulgent and preachy. It closed too. This time I got hate mail. Floods of it. From people calling me callous and homophobic. And I'm not homophobic. I'm in theater, for pete's sake. Well, not in it, but of it."

Chin was looking down at her notepad, without writing. Her pencil quivered. Had she read his review? Did she adore the play? She thought he was homophobic?

"So --" He hurried back to the real subject. "I was relieved when Bick returned and I was number two again. It took the pressure off.

But nothing's felt the same since. The strangeness returned. It felt worse than ever. Nothing has any savor anymore. Everything feels gray. I'm not sure what I want anymore."

She flipped through her notes, as if she'd lost her place. "You want to be number one again," she said idly, as if it were too obvious to mention.

He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "Yes, no, yes," he replied. "I should want Bick's job, shouldn't I?"

"You don't?"

"There's talk of retiring him. They need a replacement, which is why they moved me over to drama. As a test. And I wanted the job. Once. But I don't anymore. Only -- I don't not want it either. I'm not sure what I want anymore."

She studied him with her round, smooth, full face. Kenneth couldn't tell if her stillness masked sympathy or disapproval. She seemed so cheerfully impersonal. In a less politically aware age, he could've thought of her as an inscrutable motherly Buddha.

"Like I said," she offered. "You want people to love you."

"Isn't that a silly thing for grown-ups to want? Especially someone in my line of work."

She shrugged -- "silly" was irrelevant here. "Maybe if you praised more and criticized less?" she proposed. "Would you feel better about yourself then?"

He stared at her. "But I'm a critic. I'm paid to criticize."

"Aren't you also paid to praise?"

Lives of the Circus Animals
A Novel
. Copyright © by Christopher Bram. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Christopher Bram is the author of eight other novels, including Gods and Monsters (originally titled Father of Frankenstein), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Bram was a 2001 Guggenheim Fellow and received the 2003 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York City.

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