Elephant Hook & Other Stories

by Martin Sherman,
ISBN: 0920897274

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Virginia Beaton

THE AUTHOR bio on the cover of Elephant Hook and Other Stories (NeWest, 139 pages, $12.95 paper) describes Martin Sherman as an alumnus of both the University of Michigan and the Ringling Brothers Clown College and Circus. These may be disparate elements for a job resume, but the combination gives Sherman's work a rare blend of quirky energy and intelligence.

The best stories use the circus as a backdrop, and are remarkably free of cliches of the sideshow-freak and tears-of-a-clown variety. Instead, Sherman gives us circus performers who see themselves as professionals, and his skilful depictions are convincing. The narrator of "Elephant Hook," for example, is a cynical circus showgirl. As the story unwinds, the world of the Big Top begins to seem like any other workplace - except that here professional jealousy, flirtations, and ambition lead to tragic consequences.

Several stories have more mundane settings, but Sherman's talent for pacing keeps them from becoming commonplace. In "What the Weei Wants," a teenager, stunned by grief after his brother commits suicide, tries to cope with the whining self-pity of a neighhour. Sherman's understated style communicates the emotions of confusion and sorrow without becoming mawkish.

Sherman is also capable of tackling a more adventurous story format. "Notes from the Belly of the Whale" begins as the musings of a man during a long Prairie drive. Sherman so deftly layers it with dreams, memories, and the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale that the whole story becomes a tantalizing reflection on Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream.

Sherman's flair for snappy endings is particularly notable. He lets the anonymous taxi driver of "Cab Ride" have the last say on the difference between life and art, as the cabbie comments on an ill-fated passenger:

People think their life is like a story. They want it to end, boom, story over. It don't work that way. You live, you start a million different stories and all the people you meet are in them. You die and the stories and the rest of us go on, just no ending.


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