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Orphaned at age four and raised by her black-clad, rosary-mumbling, preoccupied grandmother, Frankka discovered the ability to perform the stigmata as a way to attract her grandmother's attention. Now twenty-eight, Frankka's still using this extraordinary talent, crisscrossing the country with "The Death and Resurrection Show," a Catholic-themed traveling freak show and cast of misfits who have quickly become her new family. But when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times shows up to review the show, Frankka finds...
Orphaned at age four and raised by her black-clad, rosary-mumbling, preoccupied grandmother, Frankka discovered the ability to perform the stigmata as a way to attract her grandmother's attention. Now twenty-eight, Frankka's still using this extraordinary talent, crisscrossing the country with "The Death and Resurrection Show," a Catholic-themed traveling freak show and cast of misfits who have quickly become her new family. But when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times shows up to review the show, Frankka finds herself on the front page of the newspaper -- the unwitting center of a religious debate. Now unsure of who she is and where she belongs, Frankka disappears in search of herself and a place to call home.
Whoosh. Car tires through puddles. Gasoline rainbows. Picture this: Two beat-up candy apple red hatchbacks trailing a wildflower-painted caravan down a sogged main street that creeps southward along the waterfront.
Madre Pia shouts through a cracked megaphone from the back of the caravan as we roll into town: "The lost will be saved, the saved will be amazed!" She's a vision, Madre is. Three hundred pounds of blithe drag queen cloaked in her old-school nun's habit, great bellowing penguin. "Tonight only, ladies and gentlemen! Saint Cat will manifest the wounds of Christ."
Rain-wet asphalt and dull brick buildings welcome us to empty streets. Steely June sky. We haven't seen the sun in weeks. Northwestern springtime: damp, damp.
"Come and see for yourself," Madre implores the rows of Victorian houses that cling like swallows' nests to an inland hill. "Mary Magdalen will perform her death-defying midair acrobatics. Six p.m. tonight. Astoria's own River Theater!"
A solitary freckled face peers out from a fogged pizza parlor window, kind bewildered reassurance that we haven't stumbled into a ghost town.
Madre lowers the megaphone to clearher throat, then lifts it to her berry mouth again. "Barbaro the great fire spitter all the way from Venice, Italy!"
The baby, riding with me today, whimpers in his car seat, rubs his sleepy eyes, reminds me of a clean-licked newborn kitten. Shock of black hair. Wide, dark eyes. "I'm hungry," he moans. Poor little fellow. This is our life: new day, new state, same show.
"The Virgin Mary herself will cast your fortune," Madre roars, undaunted by the city's silence. "Your destiny in Our Lady's hands!"
A towheaded little boy, maybe five years old, pale face blushed against the ocean wind, leaps from the doorway of the "I Buy Almost Anything" antique store. "Is it a circus?" he calls out, excited. But before Madre can answer him, a waif of a woman rushes out to the curb and pulls the boy back inside.
"It is a circus!" Madre yells to the crows perched on the roof of an old hotel. "Six p.m. tonight, the River Theater. Admission by donation. No one turned away!"
A white woman with dreadlocks stumbles out of a corner bar. "I'll be there," she promises, waving a tattooed arm before she reaches for the near cement wall to catch her balance.
"This is a show you can't miss," Madre cries with renewed enthusiasm. "One night only, ladies and gentlemen. Levitating mystics, saints performing the stigmata, Mary Magdalen flying through the air like grace itself!"
The caravan rolls to a stop in front of a little blue theater under the truss bridge. I'm driving the second hatchback, park it a few yards ahead of the others. No fans await us in handsome gray Astoria, but at least the church protesters aren't out -- the sallow-eyed men and women with their dark crucifixes and homemade picket signs assuring us all eternal damnation. You'd think we were a traveling brigade of abortionists, the reception we get in some towns. It's just a show, I always want to tell them. Isn't Satan up to anything real you can get your panties in a wad about? But I stay quiet. I understand their indignation more than I'd like to admit. And sometimes, I swear I can see my grandmother's face in those crowds. I cross myself silently, then. "It's just a show," I whisper to the heavens.
A humble mural covers the side of the theater building, pictures the river itself as a stage. Spotlights hang in the clouds. A few spectators float in black inner tubes, watching a lone performer who stands atop the water like some kind of prophet. A little marquee at the corner of the painting announces our coming:
-- Tonight Only --
The Death &
I wrestle the baby from his car seat. The straps of his overalls have gotten tangled up in the belt. "C'mon, Manny. Let's go see your mama." I prop him on my hip. A few teary raindrops fall on our cheeks as we amble over to join the others.
The theater proprietor stands out on the curb to greet us, a round brunette with eyes the color of the ocean. She holds up Astoria's Hipfish newspaper like a prized casserole. "We made the cover," she beams.
And indeed, there we all are in full-color newsprint: Lupe and the baby stand front and center like an image of the Madonna and Child. Hefty Madre Pia in her black-and-white nun dress and model-thin platinum Magdelena, bighearted bigheads, smile like celebrities on either side. Tony, Barbaro, and Paula, shy pillars of our troupe, peer over shoulders. That's me in the back, slightly elevated, wearing a crown of thorns and too much blush, performing my signature stigmata for our high-blood-pressure publicity shot.
"They've been talking about it on the radio," the proprietor says, bouncing up and down on her toes as she talks, like maybe she's had a few too many shots of espresso. "We should get a good crowd. A pretty good crowd, anyway." Bounce, bounce. "This is a small town, but it'll surprise you." Bounce, bounce. "People really come out for our shows. You all just get in? You must be hungry." Nods all around on the hunger question, so she points us in the direction of a restaurant. "It's on us." Bounce, bounce. "The saints must eat."
"I'll catch up with you guys later," I say, lifting the baby from my hip and entrusting him to Lupe's waiting arms. "I'm not hungry."
Barbaro winks at me, his olive complexion so thirsty for sunlight he almost looks ill. "We will bring for you a doggie bag," he promises.
Excerpted from The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show by Ariel Gore Copyright © 2006 by Ariel Gore. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 12, 2009
The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show is about Frankka, a lapsed Catholic with a rather peculiar psychic ability: while fasting, she can concentrate on her wrists and make them bleed. For seven years she lives on the road with a performance troupe that includes a drag queen who levitates while dressed like a Catholic nun, a fortune teller and former battered wife with a small child, a fire-breather, and a bearded woman. They rarely stay in the same town or city for a week, and satirizing the Christian religion means they sometimes encounter hostility from fundamentalists (including the "God Hates Fags" picketers whom I frequently saw in Kansas). Meanwhile, Frankka has very realistic and moving flashbacks to psychological traumas from her childhood and youth.
Although I normally avoid books that are from a Xian perspective, I decided to read The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show because Ariel Gore impressed me at a couple of author readings. To my relief, this book did not handle Xianity in a way that made me want to hurl chunks: instead, the narrator is very critical of the patriarchy in organized Catholicism and aware that goddesses such as Brigit were taken and turned into saints. The book goes on to show that even Christianity--and dare I saw Catholicism--can involve genuine spirituality, when it is in the mystical tradition rather than the way it is practiced as an organized religion. Frankka has a hobby of writing her own versions of the lives of saints, each a mystical individual. If only they were typical.
This is an excellently written literary novel with strongly developed, believable, and engaging characters.
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Posted April 10, 2010
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