Meet Bruce Feiler. Eight years ago, at 22, Feiler journeyed to a small Japanese village to teach English (the subject of his first book, Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan), then to Britain to study (amusingly chronicled in book two, Looking for Class: Seeking Wisdom and Romance at Oxford and Cambridge). So, what could this adventure-prone-though sartorially straitlaced-Yale grad possibly do for an encore? Why, strap on floppy shoes and a red nose, buy a used Winnebago, and run away with the circus, of course.
Under the Big Top: A Season With the Circus traces Feiler’s improbable season clowning around with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. The book boasts some of the wilder literary characters in recent memory — ”a dozen elephants, nine tigers, two ligers (half tiger, half lion), five bears, three women who hang by their hair, and a seven-foot, six-inch clown,” Feiler notes — and its share of circus scandal. ”The first week everyone flocked to my trailer to tell me the worst things that they’d ever done. The reason was simple: They were worried that someone else would tell me first.” Along the way, we’re presented with a colorful, sometimes unsettling, pageant of circus life, including a bear mauling, a trapeze accident, a drowning, several religious conversions, and an elephant’s ingrown-toenail operation.
For Feiler the performer, though, the experience was often less about high drama and more about the daily grind. ”Everyday…from March to December, my makeup went on at 2:30 in the afternoon and didn’t come off until 11:30 at night. If someone sees you with makeup on, you’re a clown to that person.”
Which leads to one of Feiler’s main discoveries about life in the circus: ”It comes as a great shock to most people that circus people are real. They have problems at work. They fight with their spouses. Their sins may be a little more exotic than ours. But they are just normal people, normal people who do extraordinary things.”