Horror And Slapstick In A Brutal, Timeless Parable

The Pilo Family Circus Cover
The Pilo Family Circus
By Will Elliott
Paperback, 336 pages
Underland Press
List price: $13.95
Will Elliott i i

hide captionAuthor Will Elliott published the The Pilo Family Circus in Australia in 2006.

Will Elliott

Author Will Elliott published the The Pilo Family Circus in Australia in 2006.

Fans have waited more than 20 years for another book from the great Katherine Dunn, whose amazing Geek Love centers on a family of circus freaks and sets the standard for the literary Big Top novel. She's still working and won't be rushed, but she does have a recommendation. In her glowing introduction to Australian writer Will Elliott's gripping debut, The Pilo Family Circus, Dunn offers comparisons to Kafka, Chandler, Swift, Orwell, King and The Three Stooges. The blend may be hard to conceptualize, but Elliott's story of a young man unwillingly inducted into a lethal clown act mixes horror, satire and slapstick into a brutal but timeless parable.

Jamie, a timid everyman with an arts degree who works as a concierge at a Brisbane gentleman's club and has arranged his bedroom with an eye toward impressing a cocktail waitress he's never had the nerve to ask out, nearly runs into a psychotic clown with his car after getting off a shift one night. Soon his apartment is trashed, his roommate Steve is vomiting blood, the clown and his buddies are constantly dropping in to make threats, and both Jamie and Steve are told they must pass an audition — by making the clowns laugh — within 48 hours, or die.

Motivated to comedic heights by dint of sheer terror, our hero passes and finds himself in a circus populated by hideous freaks, homicidal clowns, graceful but equally homicidal acrobats, a deadly fortuneteller and a couple of bosses — also killers, one of whom is an amateur theologian troubled by the fact that Satan has to serve as God's policeman. Jamie is forced to don magic face paint, which transforms him into JJ, the most brutal clown of all. "'Nicer the man, meaner the clown,'" one of the veteran clowns observes.

The force of the story is almost entirely psychological. The Pilo Family Circus invites the reader to consider where anyone, when pressured — and given the power — to do great evil would draw lines. At night, when JJ takes off his face paint, Jamie weeps as he remembers everything his darker twin has done. Luckily, he is paid for his work in strange white powder that helps him forget, for a time. Still, the incompatibility between the two selves continues to mount. In the circus, as in life, it is not clear until the end which side of his character will prevail.

Excerpt: 'The Pilo Family Circus'

Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.
The Pilo Family Circus
By Will Elliott
Paperback, 336 pages
Underland Press
List price: $13.95

Chapter 4: Steve's Audition

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.

He woke from fitful sleep to find the headache from the rolling pin 'gag' was finally gone. The late afternoon sun glinted on the broken glass, sharp points of light shooting off the army of jagged edges. He stood and threaded a path through the shards to the door, then paused in his tracks: a piece of paper was taped to the handle. He took a step backwards and grunted as a sliver of glass jabbed into his heel. Eyes watering, he pried it from his foot, adding a few drops of blood to the carnage. He clawed at the note with a shaking hand, and understood then that he was hanging onto his sanity by a fairly thin thread.

The note read:

Twenty hours to go, feller. Hope you got something planned. Gonko for the P.F.C.

Jamie stood for a moment with a sinking feeling, like he'd swallowed a fist-sized lump of clay. For a moment everything inside him trembled on the brink of collapse. Then he muttered, "Fuck it."

And that was that: he no longer cared about the clowns. Seriously, what could they do to him? Kill him? No. He'd grown up in the suburbs and knew death was merely a distant bogeyman from movies and newspaper headlines. If they showed up again, he was calling the cops. If they kept at him, he was going to ask one of Marshall's criminal friends where he could buy a gun.

He managed to find a band-aid in the rubble and plastered the cut in his heel. He had nothing to wear but his work clothes, so he put them on and headed up the back steps, where the shit streaks had dried into sun-baked patterns down the side of the house. Upstairs the stink had lessened and someone had been at work with methylated spirits. A few plates and cups had survived the whole ordeal and sat in their usual spot, unwashed by the sink. Jamie made a coffee and strolled through the house in a serene state of calm. From the hallway, something in the living room caught his eye.

There, sitting on the couch and staring up at him, was a man with a billowy flower-patterned shirt, a white painted face, a big red nose and big red shoes. It was Goshy. Goshy the clown.

Jamie's heart fluttered. He blinked— no one was there. All in his head. No problem. Just some kind of psychosis, stress induced. "I really am losing my fucking marbles," he muttered in amazement, then had an attack of the giggles. He took some deep breaths, fought down a more serious panic attack, almost burst into tears, then heard someone sobbing. Steve. Jamie knocked on his door.

"Who is it?" Steve said. He sounded panic-stricken, poor bastard. When it came down to it, Steve was one of those guys so used to kicking the dog he couldn't handle being kicked himself. Jamie had that much going for him: he could take a psychological blow. Lots of practice; he knew when to brace himself, how to distribute the impact.

He fought an urge to make the kettle noise outside Steve's door. "It's me," he said instead. He opened the door and saw his roommate sitting on the bed with red eyes and wet cheeks. To think, Steve had been alpha male not forty-eight hours ago. Jamie felt a distinct sociopathic thrill; he didn't like to but couldn't help it. With agreeable detachment he watched Steve wiping his eyes and sniffling. "Did they come back?" said Jamie.

Steve pointed at his dresser. Next to a framed photo of his mother and a porn magazine was a folded note, identical to those Jamie had found. He unfolded it and read:

Fourteen hours, you snivelling cocksucker. Get cracking. Gonko, P.F.C.

"I don't know what they want from me," Steve moaned. He began babbling about calling the police, about how he'd never asked for any of this, and so on, but Jamie wasn't listening; he was pondering. First, the tone of Steve's note was not friendly. On the desk were two others the clowns had left, and Jamie read them.

Thirty hours. Clock's ticking, fuck face. Gonko, P.F.C.

Nineteen hours. Stop blubbering. Faggot. Gonko, P.F.C.

Jamie's own notes were courteous by comparison. Second, there was a gap between Steve's remaining time and Jamie's. Ah yes, Jamie had been at work when the clowns first dropped by. That meant roughly six or eight hours difference— which meant he would get to see what happened to Steve if he failed the "audition".

"I'm afraid to even sleep at night," Steve was complaining. "I'm afraid to leave the house. I can't even wank without thinking about those bastards."

Jamie left him to suffer alone. He stole a pair of boots from Marshall's bedroom, went downstairs and braced himself for the cleanup.

His eyes never left the clock. Two hours passed in which he cleared the bigger bits of glass. Then he fetched a shovel and scooped the remaining slivers into piles.

The clock struck ten. He'd begun to tackle the stains and smells, and to sort out the salvageable items from the write-offs. By then, Steve had about six hours to go, give or take.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

He'd settled down for a moment's rest on the seat cushions and drifted again into unexpected sleep. Someone banging on his door woke him with a start. He got up and flung it open. It was Steve.

Jamie's heart eased back to a frantic sprint. "What do you want?"

Steve's face looked haunted. "I got to think of something."

Jamie shut his eyes. "What are you talking about?"

"To pass the audition. You know?"

Ah, yes. Steve's was not exactly a mind brimming with creativity. Jamie said, "Look, forget about it. If they come back here, call the cops. That's all."

"Yeah, but . . . you know, what if . . ."

"Did you get another note?"

"No. But . . . I can't sleep. I can't stop watching the clock. I'm trying to come up with some kind of plan, just in case, but I can't think of anything."

"No surprises there," said Jamie, a remark he would not have dared utter aloud this time last week. "I guess you just weren't cut out to be a clown, Steve. Go away. I'm sleeping."

Steve gave him a beaten-puppy look over his shoulder as he left. Jamie lay back down.

It was seven in the morning when he woke, having had far too much sleep. He scrambled to his feet, unsure if he was scared or not. Steve's deadline had now passed.

He went upstairs. From the kitchen window he saw a police car parked by the side of the house. The police! his mind screamed like a siren. Something happened — they blew up the club! I'm DOOMED.

From the hallway he could hear voices. He crept into the living room and listened. The cops were talking to Marshall. "Yeah, I dunno," Marshall was saying. "Last I saw he was on the roof. Dunno what he was doing there."

"And there's nothing like this in his room?" said one of the police.

"I dunno, man!" Marshall wailed. "I don't know who keeps fuckin' drugs in their room and who doesn't. Why don't you go take a look? You're the cop, aren't you?"

Jamie crept back into the kitchen and waited for the police to leave. When they were gone he heard Marshall swearing and throwing things around.

"What happened?" Jamie asked him from the doorway.

Marshall turned. He was unhealthily thin, with a pointed goatee that was meant to look druidic. His room was adorned with Celtic symbols, many bearing slash and burn marks from the clowns' visits. In his hand was an order to appear in court. He held a shaking index finger just below Jamie's nose. "Those . . . fucking pigs . . . found a pipe and a clip bag. It had leaf in it, for Christ's sake. I got done for having leaf!" He spat and shook his head. "It's not even quality pot. Do they know how much speed has gone through this house?" He pointed to a shoe box on the floor by the bed and whispered, "Last month I was minding fifty grand of heroin in that. AND I GET DONE FOR LEAF!"

Jamie had long ago ceased to be surprised by Marshall's outlook on life. He shrugged. "Look, have you seen Steve today?"

"I dunno, man. I can't believe this . . ."

"Did I overhear something about him climbing onto the roof?"

"Huh? Yeah, he was on the roof."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Dude was fucking high or something. He was shouting something about hoping it was good enough. If he's the one who called the cops on me, I swear to God . . . leaf!"

Jamie left him to it. Climbing onto the roof . . . Surely not, surely that wasn't Steve's idea for an audition? It almost worked for banality alone. Shaking his head, Jamie knocked on Steve's door. No answer. He barged in.

And stood dead still.

There was blood on the bed. Blood on the pillow. Blood on the floor. On the walls. A hand streak of red down the wall.

Jamie tottered and nearly fainted. His belly gave a heave. Blood . . . He had never seen so much blood.

On the pillow was a little piece of paper, folded just like the other notes. He tried to walk over, pick it up, but his legs refused to take him any closer to the red nightmare. He coaxed them to back away from the door slowly, and he shut it quietly behind him.

Don't worry, he told himself. There's still time. Plenty of time. I can pass the goddamn audition.

From up the hall he could hear Marshall wailing about the drug bust, oblivious to what lay in the room beside his. Jamie glanced at the clock, and wondered how his life had come to such ruin in so short a space of time. A week ago, hadn't things been normal? Not particularly blissful, maybe, but . . . normal?

He was supposed to be at the club in an hour. Somehow he didn't think that would happen, one way or another.

"Let's settle this," he whispered.

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The Pilo Family Circus
The Pilo Family Circus

by Will Elliott and Katherine Dunn

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