Jacob Jankowski is ninety. Or ninety-three. He's not sure what year it is. He's in a nursing home, and the circus has come to town: the old ladies are staring out of the window, watching the tent go up. And it takes Jacob back to his youth, when he walked out of his final exams at Cornell and jumped aboard a moving train -- when he ran away to join the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and witnessed a murder that he's kept mum about for seventy years.
The contrast between Jacob's life in the home and his circus days is vividly brought out in minute details: the food he doesn't want versus the illicit drinking parties (his circus days were during Prohibition); his irritated distaste for the old ladies in the nursing home versus his guilty love for Marlena and his difficult relationship (not quite friends, not quite enemies) with her husband August; the dangerous freedom of a life lived cheek-by-jowl with freaks and misfits, human and otherwise, versus the sane sameness of the home, and the friendship of one sympathetic nurse. Throughout the contemporary scenes there's a fear of being left, forgotten, abandoned: Jacob's circus days, by contrast, are a headlong progression of new towns, quasi-legal activities and strong personalities -- not all of them human. There's enough veterinary science in the circus episodes to contrast cruelly with Jacob's failing health in the nursing home.
The relationships of the past are more real to Jacob than anything in the present, and no wonder: the beautiful Marlena, Rosie the elephant who doesn't understand English, Kinko the dwarf are all larger-than-life, almost caricatures except that they have flaws and depths and fates.
I set this book aside one chapter from the end because it reminded me so acutely of visiting my father in a nursing home, of watching his gradual deterioration and his outbursts of helpless rage. I couldn't see how Jacob's tale could end happily in the present, even though it seemed likely that there'd be a happy ending in the past.
I was wrong, and I'm so glad I read the last chapter.
In an afterword, the author provides some context for the circus tales: some of the most improbable elements of the tale are based on actual events. The photographs that head each chapter help evoke that world, too, before anyone had really questioned the ethics of putting animals on display or teaching them tricks. A world in which the circus came to town by train, and everyone went to see the latest Greatest Show on Earth.