The Pilo Family Circus
by Will Elliott
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Clowns have an interesting role in culture. Their purpose is to entertain; however, there are quite a few people who find nothing but terror lurking behind their greasepaint smiles. Personally, I don't have any issues with them, but, I have to admit that when I was a child, my pediatrician had some black-velvet clown paintings on the walls of his waiting room that gave me the creeps.
Taking advantage of a clown's ability to simultaneously amuse and petrify, Australian author Will Elliott constructs the grotesque tale of Jamie, a put-upon concierge living in suburban Brisbane. One night, Jamie stumbles across a trio of circus clowns and, through a series of very unfortunate events, they recruit him into their troupe. Running away to join the circus may be a dream for some, but, for Jamie, the circus run by the Pilo family is a wide-awake nightmare.
Indeed, the circus that shanghais Jamie isn't Cirque du Soleil. This circus is situated in a subterranean netherworld and run by two demons, the titular Pilo brothers. Complicating Jamie's run is that while he's endlessly looking for an escape, once he applies his greasepaint, he undergoes a Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis and becomes JJ, a sadistic yet craven clown bent on mayhem. JJ is having fun and doesn't want to go anywhere. More to the point, JJ sees Jamie as weak and wants that side of him destroyed.
Equal parts P. T. Barnum and H. P. Lovecraft, The Pilo Family Circus is a wickedly original funhouse mirror of a novel. Once the protagonist reaches the hellish circus, his imagination runs roughshod over situations ranging from the awkward to the frightening to the phantasmagoric. If David Lynch ever decided to produce a circus around the time he made Eraserhead, it probably would have turned out a lot like this novel.
The only issues I can muster stem from the fact that this is Elliott's debut novel, and, especially early on, he sometimes makes mistakes that shouldn't make it past Creative Writing 101. When Jamie first encounters the clowns, the author writes, "'What the hell was that about?' he whispered to his reflection in the rear-mirror." Rather than letting that be the last word in the segment, Elliott follows it up with, "He would know all too soon -- the next night, in fact," forgetting the elementary rule of writing: show, don't tell. Thankfully, such distractions are few.
While this is a debut novel, Elliott's sense of pacing is mature; prolonging the protagonist's dread and keeping the reader hooked until the cataclysmic finale. Moreover, his descriptions of the circus and its denizens are a literary séance of Dante being led through a previously undiscovered ring of Hell, with Tod Browning as his guide. It is at once recognizable and completely original.
Readers in this country are fortunate, as The Pilo Family Circus arrives on these shores with an introduction written by Geek Love author Kathleen Dunn, a woman who knows a thing or two about circus freaks. This introduction whets the reader's appetite without giving too much away, and does a wonderful job of contextualizing the novel among its perhaps not so obvious literary antecedents.