Carnival culture is fertile ground for storytelling, whether we’re talking about books or movies. Jack O’Connell’s excellent 2008 novel The Resurrectionist (which focuses on the freak show element of a carny) comes immediately to mind, as does the movie Gun Crazy (the original one, from 1950, which is an all-time top 10 film noir in this joker’s opinion). Another prime example of carny life turned into a story is Robert Edmond Alter’s 1966 novel Carny Kill, which is both a gripping read and a classic of the noir fiction genre.
I don’t know much about Alter, but the author info on him that’s included in the edition of Carny Kill that I have (Black Lizard reprint from ’86) says that he died, at age 40, the same year this book was first published by Fawcett. Alter, who had short stories featured in high-profile literary magazines, wrote 17 novels and 14 of them were kids’ books. Carny Kill proves that, although he seemed to favor children’s literature when writing full-length works of fiction, he had a masterly hand when penning adult stories.
The story here revolves around a character named Thax (short for Thaxton—odd name, I know, but he prefers it to his actual first name of Leslie): a well-read underachiever who goes around quoting Remarque and Saint-Exupery and referencing scenes from classic movies, but who, at 32, is down-and-out. When Thax, who has worked for carnies in the past, wanders on to a show in a Florida town, he takes a job with it, working the shell game stand.
The one thing Thax loves as much as a good book or film, is bodily pleasures enjoyed with voluptuous women, and this overabundant drive of his has made trouble for him since he was thrown out of the 10th grade when his high school’s administration learned he was having an affair with one of his teachers. Thax has been on the Florida carny lot for about five seconds before he develops a lust-driven crush on one of the show’s exotic dancers.
Thax narrates the tale, and his cynical reflections drive the book to a great extent, and are part of what makes it so noir. Here are some examples:
On the carny:
Like most of those places that are designed for the tourist who wanders around with money falling out of his pockets, it looked fine on top, impressive. Then you start scratching the surface and the dirt you find under your fingernails is the same grime you’ll find in any clipjoint.
On people in general:
Like most carny folk I don’t like people as people but only as marks. Somebody you can trim for a dime or a buck or a bundle. If you break them down and feed them to me one by one, then maybe there will be a few that I like as individuals. But not when they flow past you like bawling cattle. Who needs a stampede?
On why books are generally better than people:
Ever since I was a kid it has amazed me how most people in this godawful world think there is enough in their puny little mundane lives that they don’t have to enhance it by escaping the brown-drab boredom of the present through books.
So, in the story, Thax has a new job and a new girl (yes, she likes him back, as most women do). But this carny show is going to bring Thax a lot more than just some change in his pocket and a chance to get his rocks off. It turns out that the wife of the show’s bossman happens to be Thax’s own former spouse: the sexy but deadly May, a former knife-throwing specialist who has a body that makes guys pant, a cunning mind, manipulative ways, and a heart that seems to be pumped by ice water. And that’s just the start of the bothersome intrigue for Thax. May’s current hubby is murdered almost immediately after Thax joins the show. And it was a knife job that has the look of the work of a pro. Of course all eyes and thoughts turn to May, but both Thax and the investigating police find it all a little too convenient, and start looking around for someone else who might have had a motive and who thought they could frame May (and of course, where the police are concerned, Thax himself is on the shortlist).
As any great carnival story should be, Carny Kill is rich with memorable characters. Besides Thax, May, and Thax’s new girlfriend Billie (she’s both jaded and sincere), there’s a sullen midget who does an apeman act for the show and who is clearly spooked by someone else lurking around the grounds; an effeminate yet streetfight-savvy guy who plays a savage wildman for the carny but who is as well-read as Thax and who is an uppers freak that never seems to sleep; the show’s business manager, who is wrapped around May’s finger and who tries to bribe Thax into helping May clear her name of the murder; a guy named Bill Duff who is a longtime nemesis/rival of Thax’s and who has been known to roll in the hay with May (including when she was still married to Thax) and who doesn’t mind dropping hints to the cops that make Thax look like a good bet for the murder; good cops and bad cops . . .
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is referenced throughout the book and serves as its steady undercurrent. The story jumps into a dramatic place in the first chapter and stays there throughout its short, taut duration. There’s some droll humor that nicely offsets all the grittiness. All told, it’s simply a masterful work of noir fiction.
I’ll close with another passage from the book—another world weary musing from the hard-loving and deep-thinking Thax:
I wondered why everybody couldn’t be beautiful. If everybody was beautiful, then we would all be so busy making love to one another we wouldn’t have time to be frustrated. Then we wouldn’t jack-roll or riot or declare war. Maybe we wouldn’t even drink ourselves to death.
Brian Greene’s short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in 17 different publications since 2008. He writes regularly for Shindig!, a U.K.-based music magazine with worldwide distribution. Greene lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee.
His “Swamp Sister” is worthy noir, too, although not on a par with “Carny Kill.”
Read CARNY KILL years ago in the very same Black Lizard edition pictured here. A memorable noir indeed.
Alter is a good writer. I actually preferred Swamp Sister, which I read first. It is less self-conscious. In Carny Kill, he injects a few too many of his opinions (mainly on literature).
As for other carny novels, Fredric Brown had a whole series of them with the nephew/uncle team of Ed and Am Hunter, and of course, there is William Lindsay Gresham’s Nighmare Alley, the greatest of them all.
Agreed about Nightmare Alley, have plans to write about that for a future piece here. Also plan to spotlight at least one of Fredric Brown’s titles.