Ellen Bryson's "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno," about P.T. Barnum

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By Samantha Hunt
Tuesday, June 29, 2010


By Ellen Bryson

Henry Holt. 331 pp. $26

When P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York burned to the ground on July 13, 1865, the whales, whose sportive plunges had always drawn crowds, suffered a gruesome death, boiling in their basement aquariums. But the fire greeted Barnum's human performers with a choice: Stay and burn up or flee and face the light of day. Gawkers gathered on the sidewalks, watching the freaks escape to the safety and privacy of nearby hotels.

Set in the months between President Lincoln's assassination and the museum's fiery demise, Ellen Bryson's novel "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno" creates a fantastic mood of claustrophobia. Her characters patrol the hallways of the museum, haunting its arboretums, lecture halls, menageries and aquariums, creeping among its waxworks, scientific-ish dioramas and oddball memorabilia. New York's fireworks and greasy alleys are remotely glimpsed from the museum's rooftops and balconies. Rarely do Bryson's characters sally forth into the city streets, and when they do, they're rank with paranoia, under the cover of both costume and night. They do not belong.

On one nighttime outing, Bartholomew Fortuno, the museum's thin man and our narrator, rests a moment on a park bench. When an old woman tells her companion, "I think the poor thing is dead," Fortuno stands and removes his hat.

" 'It moves!' The older woman cried, bowing her head to genuflect. 'In the name of the Father and the Son!'

" 'I am alive, woman!' I shouted at her. 'Alive and well! Or at least I would be if it were slightly less hot outside today.'

"Startled, the woman stumbled backward and grabbed her companion's hand, and they scuttled off in the opposite direction, horror-struck that a dead man could have such appalling manners. This was precisely why I never mixed with people outside of the Museum. Normal people needed the context of my show to understand my place in the world. And I needed the distance from normal people. Idiots, every one."

Bryson's novel explores the shifting grounds between performer and audience, interior and exterior, anomaly and normal. What does it mean to be a freak? Where does freakishness begin?

Fortuno, surviving on a daily handful of beans, considers his skeleton-like appearance to be a gift. In red tights, he believes his performances are not the horror shows of a living corpse but educational seminars that stir envy in his audiences. In a game of manipulation not fully grasped by the naive Fortuno, Barnum draws him from the museum into the world outside, and the thin man finds himself vilified and stereotyped as another "freak," an opium-dealing "Chinaman."

Over the course of the novel, Fortuno becomes adrift in the caste system of Barnum's performers. Is he a Prodigy, one of those who comes by his gift naturally, such as Giantess Emma Swan? Is he an Exotic who must perfect his gift, such as Rubber Man Ricardo? Or is he merely a Gaff -- a charlatan actor with no real gift at all?

Creating quirky characters from historical denizens of Barnum's museum is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (or whales in a basement aquarium). Fortuno himself is based on real-life Thin Man Isaac Sprague with shades of Kafka's Hunger Artist thrown in. At times, the pinheads and fat ladies read a bit flat, but Bryson brings a dimensionality to both Barnum and Iell Adams, the Bearded Lady Extraordinaire, from whose dual nature the central plot mechanism springs. Bryson claims that Iell came to her in a dream, a vision of six sisters: "One after the other, they shouted out their names. . . . I can still see her calling out 'Iell,' her beard a stunning burnished red, her face the face of an angel. I couldn't take my eyes off her. How could a woman with a beard be so beautiful?"

In Iell we feel the true weight of being born a spectacle and see people's bottomless appetite for shock. Her cursed blessing provokes questions about selling a body's differences. What is performance, and what is prostitution?

Barnum, as he was wont to do, steals much of the show. His sinister complexity still proves irresistible as he creates the fabrications we desire. A spurious Circassian Beauty is made flesh by a serving girl once called Bridgett. She reminds the reader how often the truth lies in a not-quite-truthful story.

Though the book's final revelation is rather sudden -- a curtain drawn back with great flourish -- "The Transformation" dynamically carries us back to a time before naivete was crippled under industrialism and suckers were born every minute. Borrowing a bit of Barnum's flame, Bryson has made her own hall of curved mirrors.

Hunt's most recent novel is "The Invention of Everything Else."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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