A Clown and The Greatest Show ~ View From the Keyboard of Michael Downs

A number of years ago–I refuse to fully consider how many–I met Michael Downs at a workshop we both attended in Montana. I remember reading his manuscript one evening, an intriguing piece from something that had a Saul Bellowian title, and thinking, holy sh–, this guy is great. And you know what? I was right. Not just a really, really fine writer, but Downs is one of those people who pretty much everyone likes when they get to know him. He is a generous colleague, a caring teacher, a fun friend, and just a heck of a nice guy. And talented. But don’t just take my word for it; check out the creds: A River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for his book HOUSE OF GOOD HOPE (University of Nebraska Press,) a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose (these are mighty hard to get in these times), and another fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. His forthcoming collection of linked stories, THE GREATEST SHOW, is due out in Spring 2012 from Louisiana State University Press, Spring 2012.

And this is where it happens-

DOWNS: Here is my desk, moments after I sopped up a puddle of beer, which I’d spilled while talking on the phone with a clown.

My desk is in Baltimore. The clown was in Vermont. As we talked, a hurricane was bearing down on her. The same hurricane had already passed over the house that holds my desk. The clown had called because she plans to perform in a promotional video trailer for my next book. She wanted to better understand the book and her role in the video. THE GREATEST SHOW has as its catalyst the true story of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed one-hundred-sixty-nine people and injured hundreds more. Thus, the clown.

In the video, she will say: “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”

I don’t drink spirits when I’m writing. But when the clown telephoned on our landline I’d been outside raking up debris left by the hurricane. And I do, sometimes, drink beer as I rake. So I hurried upstairs to talk to the clown (bringing the beer), and as we were talking, I couldn’t find a pen on my desk (it’s cluttered), and I knocked over the bottle. Suds
puddled on the desktop, which is hard and heavy oak, and soaked into the bound draft of a novel I’m working on. You can see that draft in the foreground of the picture. You can’t, however, tell that it smells like Yuengling.

This, then, is my desk: Where I talk to a clown about one book while spilling beer on another; where a jumble of papers coax me toward blog posts, and a water bottle waits for me to take it along when I play basketball; and a friend’s book reminds me to write a blurb; and my niece and nephew grin earnestly out of school photos; and coffee cups get lost
for days; and imagined people fall in love, and betray each other, and forgive, and die; where I read the news of the world and watch other writers’ book trailers on YouTube.

The oak desk bears all this burden. Once, it belonged in the office of a women’s basketball coach at the University of Montana. When I moved it here to Baltimore, to my second floor office, it took four strong men to get it up the stairs. It is not a desk that wants to be moved. Though it is polished and handsome beneath the clutter of spilled beer and hurricane-lives, constancy is this desk’s great virtue.


An excerpt from the story, “The Greatest Show,” from the book of the same name

Wartime. July’s worst heat. Hundreds of women and children panting and sticky in folding chairs in the bleachers. Then the tent catches fire. No one knows why. A lot of people die. Some sixty years later, we still try for a better performance in Hartford. We don’t take the blame for history. We’re not Ringling. We’re a chicken-dinner outfit from Branson hired for county fairs and Shriner shows. We feel no responsibility for a gas-soaked rag of a tent that collapsed on a crowd decades before most of us were born. But we’re not heartless. So Hartford always gets a little extra.

“But not today, right?” said Chico, his tongue flicking through the gap in his teeth. “My people ain’t done setting up. Give history a rain check.”

“No rain checks,” said Fritz. “I’ve been on the phone. Home office wants us to cancel the whole Hartford run. Pick up again in Rutland, maybe. It’s today or not at all.”

Renato, the father in our family of aerialists, said no, absolutely not, but Schmautz the Clown wanted to. Chico insisted his crew get its regular take for a full house. “This is charity,” said Schmautz. Chico said, “Charity is when they bring the crippled kids. This is nuts.” And Ursula suggested that if we did charity, we should do it where people were suffering right now.

That got everyone quiet. Then someone said, “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”


See, told you he could write, didn’t I? Michael Downs is a graduate of the University of Arkansas’ Programs in Creative Writing; he lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson Univerity. Contact Michael at “mdowns at michael-downs.net.” His blog on the forthcoming book, etc: http://greatestshow.blogspot.com/. And thanks again for reading! -PMc←