Friday, May 11, 2012

Three Ring Sex Circus

John Maggie
Trojan Classics, 1973

Talk about a carnie come on: What kind of sexual contortions could lithe, limber and exhibitionistic trapeze artists and acrobats master if they put their minds to it and how cool would it be to watch? That's Three Ring Sex Circus' spiel. What it delivers is a little less salacious, but considerably more interesting.

In 2012, running away to join the circus is as quaint an idea as riding the rails as a hobo. But in the 1973 there was still a viable travelling carnival circuit; it was on its last legs, but still the last port of call for semi-functioning junkies, freaks and down-and-outers, including girls who danced… sorry, "danced" in clandestine cooch shows where the action was way raunchier than anything you could see at the average go-go bar. Three Ring Sex Circus unfolds against the backdrop of a rapidly vanishing world whose stars were scrambling for berths in Las Vegas and on TV variety shows. As to the rest, well, they just melted into the purgatory of no hopers.

The touring Prince Royal Circus and Side Show does 200 performances in seven months, bringing a smorgasbord of animal acts, aerialists, clowns, acrobats, rides and games to small towns and cities across the US. Two multigenerational, European family acts are locked in perpetual competition for the spotlight: The German-born Vollenweiders, high-wire artists whose TV savvy has made them household names and the elegant Flying Kopkes, a troupe of trapeze artists. Twenty-two-year-old Mike is torn between them: He's a Vollenweider by blood and would never abandon his family, but he's so impressed by the artistry of the Kopkes' trapeze work that he spends every spare minute working with them. Or is he just trying to avoid dealing with his sexual identity issues? People are starting to wonder why handsome Mike doesn't have a girlfriend; the answer is that he's starting to experiment with other guys. Something's got to give and the close quarters of carnie life mean it's going to give sooner rather than later.

And then love walks in and clarifies everything: Mike has an accident in the ring, a minor mishap that could just as easily have been the dividing line between before and after. And roustabout Jerry, an rootless orphan who thrives on carnie comraderie and the hope that one day he'll get the chance to do motorcycle stunts in the ring, offer some first aid assistance, casually breaching the divide between circus royalty and the faceless peons who pitch tents, set up rides and man midway attractions.

A week later, Mike and Jerry get together to hang out, and by the end of the night it's clear that they're on their first date and it's going to end in bed, even though the sum total of Jerry's same-sex experience is a little drunken grope and tickle. And that's all it takes to make Jerry and Mike a couple, complete with post-coital dreams of a future together.
Come morning it's clear that things aren't going to be easy. Jerry's trailer mate, wily drunk Jonesy, saw them in the act and starts making vague noises that sound an awful lot like blackmail, while Mike's old-world dad and macho brother, Paul, turn up the "find a girl, it's your family duty" heat. But Mike and Jerry's next rendezvous seals the deal: Each recognizes the other as his soul mate… all they have to do is work out the details, starting with getting their own trailer. And amazingly enough, that works itself out: A fire consumes both Jerry's old trailer and the inconvenient Jonesy, a bit of serendipity that sows the seeds of poisonous doubt – Mike couldn't have torched the place, could he?

While they await delivery of their new trailer, Mike bunks with his family and solicits sex with strangers, while Jerry's temporary berth with animal wranglers Valerie and Ken Simpson turns into a kinky three-way romp. Even after Mike and Jerry's rolling love nest arrives, tensions remain: Each suspects that other has strayed and won't fess up. A three-way with the try-sexual Stan Kopke helps clear the air, but Jerry gives in to on-the road temptation one time too many, and when Mike catches him in bed with a girl it looks as though their fine romance is over.

But only a fool counts love out: Jerry gets a chance to strut his motorcycle maniac stuff in the ring and Mike comes to his senses while watching his the man he loves putting his life in the line. Jerry and Mike both acknowledge that they're going to have ups and downs, but they're in it for the long haul.

Three Ring Sex Circus (written as Three Ring Circus, the title under which appears in another Trojan book's list of upcoming novels)may well have been sold on the dual hooks of acrobatic sex and the fame of The Flying Wallendas, a German-born family troupe of aerialists who specialized in high-risk, TV-friendly stunts, like the highly-publicized wire walk across Georgia's Tallulah Gorge patriarch Karl Wallenda, then 65, did in 1970. Even if it wasn't, author Maggie's Vollenweiders are clearly the Wallendas and The Kopkes bear more than a passing resemblance to the Italian-born Togni family, aerialists who also made the transition to TV and movies in the early '70s.

No one will ever mistake Three Ring Sex Circus for great literature, but it's more considerably interesting than it has to be, both because its vivid depiction of day-to-day backstage life at the circus is startlingly vivid and because its primary concern isn't hot sex, though it delivers enough to justify the cover price. It, like the equally surprising Boys Behind Bars (1973), is about negotiating the terms of a relationship under, shall we say, trying circumstances.
So kudos to author "John Maggie" who, given the low esteem in which adults-only novels were held, could have earned his check by knocking out formulaic smutty fantasy – imagine what you could do with a guy who can touch his heels to the back of his head… But no; he delivers hotties who can't keep their hands off each other, then gives them inner lives. They're bound by family histories and social constraints, but refuse to be defined by them; they're young, impulsive and secretly insecure in all kinds of ways, but when push comes to shove, they decide to take a chance on love, conventions be damned, and commit to the work that comes after the honeymoon. That's bucking both the 'anything goes' zeitgeist of the '70s and the 'small town on wheels' culture of the circus and makes those boys cultural radicals. Yay.

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