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“I brought my nose,” laughs D.C. author Bruce Feiler, who quickly proceeds to clamp an oversize red rubber schnoz over his god-given one. Without the prop, Feiler looks exactly how one would expect a 30-year-old Yale/Cambridge graduate to look. With it, he looks, well, pretty silly.
Which is fine by Feiler. For him, the quest for silliness isn’t a trivial pursuit: His stint as a real live circus clown led to the recent publishing of Under the Big Top: A Season With the Circus, a lovingly brutal take on circus life.
Feiler did the research for his third and latest tome during a 99-city, 501-show run with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus (“The Largest Three-Ring Tent Circus in the World”).
Though he took the $180-a-week job (“And no sick days!”) with the intention of writing a book about the experience, Feiler had been aching to clown around since he learned to juggle at age 12. At one time, he even considered bypassing his New Haven education in favor of one from clown college.
Once in the silly suit, Feiler deduced that clowns rank low in circus hierarchy. The best pie-in-the-face routine, he now accepts, won’t ever get the wild applause routinely granted either the elephant who takes a midring dump or the flunkie who scoops it up. Even more humbling was the realization that, regardless of the town or the bar, circus groupies will never choose a night with a clown over a roll with a daredevil.
“I learned that it was a mistake to try to pick up women in bars with the Human Cannonball,” he says. “Nobody would even look at me when I was with him!”
Much of Under the Big Top is devoted to sex. Indeed, Feiler has a theory about how the circus has survived as an entertainment form despite the advent of movies, television, and Nintendo. “The circus is all about sex, and that’s why it won’t go away,” he preaches. “Look at what clowns do to get laughs! They chase each other around and get spanked, or they drop their pants and show off their exotic, colorful underwear. And look how we use the word “trick’! It applies to streetwalkers and wire-walkers.”
Thankfully, not all the book’s sex is theoretical. The exploits of Sean Thomas, the Human Cannonball, are particularly well documented, including a post-show gang-bang he instigated in Princeton, N.J. That incident, captured on videotape by one of the orgyists, got rolling after Thomas coaxed a devil worshiper out of a Red Lobster and into his trailer with the line, “Wanna make love in my cannon?”
Many of the anecdotes in Under the Big Top are so tall that Scribner shouldn’t catch much hell for mistakenly labeling advance copies “fiction.” Like the one about the AIDS scare that hit the troupe in Cape Cod after a drunk townie who was mutilated by a bear turned out to be HIV-positive. Or the one about the professional demise of the world’s tallest clown, 7-foot-6 Buck Nolan, whose 30-year career with the circus blew up amid flimsy accusations that he’d touched a young fan in the wrong place.
“Believe me, it’s all very true. I couldn’t make this stuff up,” Feiler says. “I don’t write fiction.”
Like Under the Big Top, Feiler’s other books are forays into participatory journalism. His first, Learning to Bow, recounts his experience as an English teacher in Japan; Looking for Class: Seeking Wisdom and Romance at Oxford and Cambridge, grew out of Feiler’s postgrad days across the pond. When asked which of the three new worlds (Japan, England, the circus) was least welcoming, Feiler takes time before offering a response.
“I guess it would be the circus,” he says. “Japan was definitely different. England was different. But the circus is a world where the bizarre becomes the everyday, where the brilliant becomes the everyday. That’s not something you can just get used to easily.”
For his next book, which is already in the planning stages, Feiler intends to immerse himself in the country-music industry and “find out what the new popularity of the music says about America.”
But Feiler still has some unfinished business to take care of. Next week, he begins a promotional tour for Under the Big Top that has him booked through July.
This weekend, when the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus sets up its multicolored tent in the parking lot of Lake Braddock High School, Feiler dons the clown suit one last time for a local appearance with his former co-workers. (“The circus does Mother’s Day in Burke every year,” he says.) It will be the first time he’s seen many of them since the tell-all book was written, but he doesn’t feel that he’s jeopardizing his health by performing with them again.
“A lot of what I say is harsh,” he says, “but I think everybody there knows that everything was done with a genuine love for the circus, for what they do. And they know that what I say is true. So I don’t expect there will be any problems. I think it will be like a reunion of old military buddies. For a lot of different reasons, people from a lot of different backgrounds were thrown together and forced to share a tough, gritty existence for a period of time. We all went through hell and back together. I lived to tell the story.”