UNDER THE BIG TOP: A SEASON WITH THE CIRCUS
By Bruce Feiler
Scribner, 288 pp., $23
Bruce Feiler must have been riveted by a recent news item about circus elephants breaking free in Forest Park in New York. A good part of his book, ''Under the Big Top,'' is devoted to just such happenings.
In Feiler's account, however, the elephant escapade was much darker than the minor panic in Forest Park. An elephant crushed an intruder who climbed into its compound and surprised the huge beast. Many of the circus vignettes painted by Feiler are, in fact, dark-hued: human failings and ego-driven rampages as well as the more predictable lapses of half-domesticated wild animals.
This book adjusts the common view of the circus as a kind of real-life cartoon world. Actual people, with actual, if somewhat exaggerated, versions of everyday problems inhabit the big top and the mobile village of trailers and RVs that accompany it.
Feiler, a sure-handed writer with an obvious attraction for the direct, face-to-face entertainment exemplified by the circus, decided to take a year and experience this world from the inside. His ticket to a season with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus - billed as the globe's largest tented circus - was his willingness to learn the clown's stock in trade.
Feiler's initiation into ''clown alley,'' where pride and peevishness lurk beneath the grease paint, is a theme throughout the book. He weathered the jibes and torments that await all newcomers to the circus community. The insularity of the circus isn't solely a function of people being narrowly focused on highly specialized skills, or even of their sharp consciousness of the outside world's jaded view of them. These people, quite simply, are extraordinarily dependent on one another. Everyone's ability reinforces everyone else's - a tragedy for one is a tragedy for all.
When Sean Thomas, the ''human cannonball,'' misses his target one evening, the whole show is threatened. Sean is the finale, the capping thrill. When Danny Rodriguez, a key member of the trapeze troupe, deserts the show and his family in a fit of adolescent assertiveness, the whole circus is jolted.
Feiler became enough of an insider to feel these crises, not just report them. In fact, he clearly came to respect nearly everyone on the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. lot - from kindly co-owner Johnny Pugh, who near the end of the season gives Feiler the high compliment of saying he improved the show through his clownsmanship, to the prop man who had once survived by mugging people and was now trying to make the circus job his path toward reconciling with his family.
Through Feiler's observations, we see the maturation of stars like Khris Allen, the young big-cat trainer who was quickly pushed into a starring role when the former trainer, his erstwhile girlfriend, left the show. We see old-timers, like Buck - the world's tallest clown - abandon the big top, because concerns over liability put a wall between entertainers like the clowns and the kids who flock to see them. Many among the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. crew wonder if their way of life has a future.
Feiler is betting that it has - that people will always be drawn to the livest of shows, perhaps even more as they tire of second-hand entertainment via TV and computer screens. He doesn't sugarcoat the circus; readers get grim scenes and foul language. But he also conveys the enduring romance and communal closeness.
His book should make anyone yearn to go out and see the circus's spectacle because, considering what goes on all around the canvas cathedral, it's an even bigger show than it's billed to be.