BWW Reviews: THE DEAD CIRCUS Brings L.A., the Sixties, to Life
More than any other American city--even New York--Los Angeles occupies a psychic space as well as a geographic one. More than any other decade "the sixties" represents a state of mind as much as a series of dates in history.
As someone who grew up discovering the sixties in the seventies and has visited Los Angeles exactly once (and that in the nineties), I can't speak with much personal experience about either the city or the decade that fascinate me beyond reason. The most I've been able to do regarding either is, well, read about them.
That has amounted to a lot of reading--both fiction and nonfiction--much of it deeply rewarding and/or disturbing.
John Kaye's 2002 novel, The Dead Circus (the title is from a barely mentioned underground newspaper which I took to be fictional, but one of the many strengths here is a wealth of details that blur the line between what was and what ought to have been), brings a new dimension--one I didn't suspect could be caught between the covers of a book until now.
Reading this account of a grieving private detective/obsessive record collector (now there's a dream occupation) who has set out to discover the mysteries behind the 1966 death of garage band hero Bobby Fuller, I actually felt some of the thrills associated with the sounds that made me love (and worry about) Los Angeles from afar in the first place. A literary match, then, for the qualities that were always laying between the grooves of records made by the likes of the Robins and the Pharaohs in the fifties, the Byrds and the Beach Boys in the sixties, War and Fleetwood Mac in the seventies, the Go-Go's and Los Lobos in the eighties. Any self-respecting obsessive could name a similar list and an L.A. native like Kaye's wouldn't necessarily match mine or yours, but there's bound to be some overlap. Anybody interested in the city or the period is going to find a way in--and quickly. And nobody who finds a way in is likely to want the book to end.
L.A.'s always been a huge scene and "the sixties" has always been a huge decade.
Nobody has added up the two quite like Kaye does here.
The human story is a good one. A man named Gene Burk, one of the police detectives who first investigated Fuller's death, has long since left the force. He's become a private detective, successful enough to feed his record collecting habit, which has him flying around the country and eventually meeting a flight attendant who is flying back to the coast to marry him when she dies in a plane crash. From there, the past--hers and his, interlocked in ways neither of them could have foreseen--comes roaring back.
Based only on that, Kaye had the workings of something worthwhile, and he does fine by it.
But the novel really takes off in the margins--the larger story of a time and place that works its way through the story of these two people in ever more surprising and often moving ways.
There might not be any way to actually top a scene like the one at the beginning of the novel, which has Gene Burk--still a cop--sitting in the legendary night club. P.J.'s. on the night the Bobby Fuller Four began their stint as the house band, trying to talk his brother Ray out of renewing a high school acquaintance with Nancy Sinatra--who may or may not be Fuller's girl-friend and is seated a few tables away--and plays like this as Ray recalls a disastrous high school date that ended with Nancy having to walk home from a party because he was passed out:
At school on Monday Ray saw her in the cafeteria and tried to apologize, but she moved her head in denial, continuing to talk to her girlfriend as if he weren't there. Then, just as he was about to give up, she turned her face toward him, and he could see the hostility in her stony eyes.
"Ray Burk," she said, her icy smile only making his anguish worse, "you have no idea how lucky you are."
"Because I didn't tell my dad."
That's my new favorite scene from any novel ever--and it's even germane to the central plot!--but it's really just a beginning. A few pages more and you find a future Manson girl, backstage in Fuller's dressing room after the show, a "guest" of the rhythm guitar player for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (a name anyone too young to remember the sixties might well credit to Kaye's imagination--a name that not only should have existed but actually did), who got on the band's bus in Arizona and is on her way to Berkeley, telling a yet unknown Sharon Tate that she'll be a movie star.
Anybody who has read Helter Skelter knows how it will play from there. Right?
Except it doesn't.
Kaye knows that all the obvious paths have been relentlessly trod--by blaring headlines about Tate's murder at the hands of the "family" his fictional character is already looking for though she doesn't yet know any such thing will ever exist and by numerous best-selling books ever since. So when he pays off that intro to a character named Alice nearly three hundred pages later, it's with a letter the now past Manson girl has written long ago to Gene Burk's fiancé, (like her, named Alice, and, like her, from the same Iowa hometown which was the site of Buddy Holly's last show). On a list of five favorite songs, she puts Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" because "it's the way I lived my life--without thinking twice," a single line that explains more about Charlie Manson's ability to consume fragile souls in an age fraught with turbulence than the entire several thousand pages of "history" that prepared me to receive it.
Those little shocks of recognition and insight--of a reader who thought he was educated on this stuff, saying "of course!" to what happened and to what might have happened--never stop coming. And they never stop making both mythical and historical sense. Too often, when novelists take on history, they write research--they give us what we already know in a rather direct, almost documentary form. Remarkably, Kaye, an accomplished screenwriter, often relates scenes as though they might be "treatments." A risky strategy to say the least. But here, it's just one more way to effectively mesh dreamscapes with landscapes.
You don't have to love Bobby Fuller as much as I do--or find Kaye's resolution of the mystery surrounding his death as convincing as I did--to smile at a line of dialogue like, "Did you see Springsteen's face when I mentioned Bobby Fuller?....Did you see it light up?" and, at the same time, feel the loss of what might have been.
You just have to be willing to give yourself over to a writer who moves effortlessly back and forth in time and space, showing how the L.A. of the sixties grew out of the forties and in turn produced the L.A. of the eighties.
Do that and you're liable to find yourself lost in a novel that cuts deep enough under the surface to leave virtually anyone seeking to understand its great subjects far richer for the experience.