"WITH - IT"
Reviewed by Jon Obermeyer
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Greensboro News and Record
I hit the road in the mid-1970s and traveled with grifters and
over the South, in a saga that leaps off the page like a season
of "Carnivale" on HBO. The book is a must-read for anyone who
ever thought of following the sawdust trail. It's laden with
as our journey took us through the wilds of Appalachia and the
mild miles of the
as well as into the deep south where we found the Klan alive and
on the attack.
In my signings so far I find that everybody has a question about
the carnival - from why the games are so hard to win (I know the
answer), to whether I met any real freaks (I did) or worked with
hanky-panky and hootchy-kootchy (I did). I have the real scoop
on this fascinating underworld and I've told all in
Barbara Bamberger Scott
WITH IT, A Year on the Carnival Trail
By Barbara Bamberger Scott
A carnival ride owner once told me that his set-up crew
intentionally leaves a hole or two in the fence surrounding the
midway. The laws of carnival economics say that a person who
sneaks into a carnival for free actually spends more money on
rides, food and other amusement than the person who pays full
gate admission. It is exactly this kind of
behind-the-canvas-tent insider information that is woven through
the narrative fabric of "With It," the debut novel of Dobson
author and News & Record book reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott.
The year is 1976. Curious about carny life from a 10-day stint
selling tacos at a Southern state fair, the female narrator, her
husband Zach and young daughter Moon decide to go on the road:
"I was entranced by the magic of the midway. There's romance
about taking to the open road that stirred my heart." And when
you join the carnival, you are said to be "with it," a term that
serves as both a badge of honor and a succinct book title.
The innocent trio is absorbed immediately and utterly into the
foreign culture of the carnival: "Two months ago, we'd been an
average little family, safe in our home, relying on television
for entertainment and newspapers for information, concerned
about balanced diets and efficient soap powders. Now we hardly
knew what was going on in the world."
For half a year, they make their way through Appalachia (where
impoverished citizens are easily parted from their paychecks)
and the Midwest (where wholesome farmers don't like spending
money), returning in a full Ferris wheel-like turn to the
original point of departure in the South in time for the state
Dense with carny slang and detail, Scott's episodic tale and
edge-of-camp characters are reminiscent of some of John
Steinbeck's work. Even her colorful chapter headings echo
Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat," as in "Chapter 11: In Which We
Calculate the Price of Water in Hell, The Crawfish Kid Goes to
Court, and Fargo Finds a Morphodite."
In addition to introducing a cast of predictably bizarre
carnival characters (the aforementioned Crawfish Kid, Gypsy
Davy, Sam the Chimney Man), Scott's road show takes us to a
range of locales, including county fairs, Shriner fund-raisers
in shopping center parking lots and set-ups in pastures at the
edge of town. Most dreaded are the "still dates," where the
cash-flow-challenged carnival rookies face "The dubious boon of
setting up in a deserted parking lot at a time when the weather
is uncooperative, the marks unwilling, the jointees unhappy and
the ride help unwashed as usual."
Scott is part anthropologist, linguist and economist in her
portrayal of carny culture, which is based on her own experience
working in the business.
There's even a five-page glossary of carnival terms at the back
of the book, helpful whenever you come across sentences like
this: "We discovered that there are three general types of
gaming concessions in the carnival - flats, alibis, and hanky
panks." She accurately depicts the pecking order, social castes
and motivating factors in carnival life: "Reliable help is hard
to find in the carnival business - it's almost a truism that
anyone who'd work in the business would be somewhat unreliable
by definition. ... A carny is somebody who will work like hell
to avoid having a steady job."
Yet Scott's narrator and her family never quite fit into their
adopted culture. They are in some ways outsiders to a carnival
community consisting completely of society's outsiders: "Perhaps
the jewelry joint was a bright reflection of my scruples. I
never had to feel that anyone left the joint unsatisfied. It was
easier for me than selling "air" - the air that blew through a
cork gun ... the air that blooms into cotton candy, the hot air
of the alibi or flatstore agent. ... We wanted a joint that had
the possibility of being won fair and square. We were not
prepared to totally abandon our middle class moral code...."
While Scott's writing occasionally strays into cliche and
confusing imagery ("I swallow a mental lump of salt"), it can
suddenly reveal a gift for simple and elegant prose: "We woke to
find freezing rain pouring in under the bally cloth. Our
bedding, clothing, donkeys, and bears, all were drenched and
stiff. Our dear friend Kenny ... looked as though he had just
Or this especially poignant passage, describing a last wistful
walk along the empty midway: "Before pulling out, I walked
around the lot, locating places where each joint had been. The
grass was ruined now, mashed and yellowed by joints and trucks.
I spotted a small rectangle where the jewelry joint had sat,
with a few broken chains in the dirt. There was a huge rectangle
that had housed the doll glass pitch with the grass all around
it flattened where the marks had stood to toss their dimes."
"With It" reads more like memoir where only the names have been
changed. It's a fairly simplistic story told in straightforward,
expository prose; hardly the plot and character development
you'd expect in a complex work of literary fiction. If you have
your sights on taking home a giant purple, stuffed teddy bear of
a novel, then you may be disappointed. But if you approach "With
It" as autobiography dressed up with streamers and lights for
the carnival midway, it can be an enjoyable form of amusement.
Jon Obermeyer is a poet and book reviewer who has also written
three circus program guides for Ringling Bros. & Barnum and
Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth. As a volunteer in the
1980s, he donned a canvas apron to sell exact-change tickets to
the GYC Carnival in the
Greensboro Coliseum parking lot.
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