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.''