In Mark Mayer’s impressive debut collection of short stories, a circus or aerialist never actually makes an appearance. Mayer deftly applies the theme obliquely instead, letting the associations around the circus stand in for what is just beyond our reach, for the freak inside us, for our vanishing acts in relationships and in death. Characters who might have been in a circus are enmeshed in ordinary life: a boy comes home from a summer with his father to find his mother has taken up with a strongwoman; a peach farmer wakes to find that the retired circus elephant in his care for years has died and he needs to find a way to bury it; and a girl communicates telepathically with her best friend, who lost her conjoined twin at birth.
Though the title story, “Aerialists,” features no circus artist, the theme of flying through the air is everywhere and represents a longing for perspective. Seventeen-year-old Corbin is spending his last days of summer with his girlfriend, Trina, before he joins the military and she goes to college. Corbin and Trina sort aerial photographs for a retired pilot, Mr. Gold, who later admits to Corbin that he wishes any of his photographs “could’ve had some air in it. I wish I could’ve taken one picture of the actual air.” When Corbin was young, he believed he could fly: “I could remember it, not jumping off of anything . . . just slowly floating up over my bed, the house, sustained by something in my chest.” He describes sex with Trina as being in two places at once—“with her, but also high where I can see my whole life passing. The tree house, the pickup, the storage shed.” And when Trina does leave for college and his older brother ships off to sea abruptly, he re-creates his neighborhood on a program in an Internet room on Gold’s computer. In this world that he can control completely, he puts himself in a hot-air balloon. In this period of transition and of learning how to be alone, Corbin finds comfort in visualizing his world from above and on his own terms, all while looking for a safe place to land.
While these nine stories are held together by themes of loneliness, the tone, voice, and pacing are remarkably disparate. The movement of “Strongwoman” and “Twin,” for instance, is swift and light, jumping over seasons and mostly describing how things were generally. In “Strongwoman,” the narrator tells us, “Sometime that fall Klara stopped coming around, and my mom wailed again at night.” The stories that focus in on one time and place are more successful. “The Evasive Magnolio” is a strange but wonderful standout in this regard. The tone and voice are somber, reflective, and tender. A peach farmer, Stony, who has taken care of a retired circus elephant for decades, has awakened to discover that “Maggy” has died overnight. A blight has destroyed the town’s livelihood over the years, and Stony wanders into town to see who is left to help him bury the elephant. Some passages read like an incantation:
It was an hour’s journey, but he didn’t feel the time. Another season, the light off the crops would have tinged his sleeves green, but this year, like the two before it, there were no crops at all. At both sides, naked land stretched off too straight and flat to fit a rounding planet. No vehicles lumbered the road; none had in weeks. The commerce the town survived on was the winter kind: they’d peddled to themselves from pantries and cellars since their last real harvest, its memory nearly gone.
Mayer conjures here an apocalyptic landscape full of dust, death, and loss of memory. All the while, the presence of the rambling circus echoes in the distance. In a particularly moving scene, Stony compares his own life with Maggy’s once vibrant one: “Stony had never traveled, never married. It seemed he was born already settled down. But this elephant had seen the capitals of every continent. He’d seen the eyes of every family in every city large enough to fit his tent. The horses, the dogs, the roustabouts, the band; greetings from governors, flowers from their wives—and none of it forgotten.”
Like a fable, the story is flush with symbolism: the name Stony implies the pit of a fruit already eaten, the dust of stone, and death; peaches are associated with immortality; and Maggy himself is an emblem of memory and in his death, the loss of it. There is so much richness to unpack, it is worth rereading to see what else resonates. It is a beautiful, lonesome story, and if Mayer wrote in this style only, this reader would be happy.
But in this collection, Mayer seems to be showing us that he has many disguises as a writer. “The Clown” is nearly perfect as a tale of horror—I have read few opening lines as frightening as “The clown counted his murders as he drove the new couple to the house on Rocking Horse Lane.” He also captures adolescence with authenticity, tenderness, and humor, particularly in “The April Thief.” In that story, twelve-year-old Parker’s best friend, Javier, pulls up the leg of his pants and points at the hair on his leg: “All the way around. I’m telling you, dude, the beast awakes.” The story also doubles as a mystery: Parker is collecting clues to figure out if his father has cheated on his mother, who has been away at a meditation retreat for a suspiciously long time. “Solidarity Forever,” which begins with the news on TV that Boris Yeltsin has declared the end of the Soviet Union, dips into the genre of historical narrative.
Aerialists is a strong debut—these are tender and complex stories that are rich in diversity and ambition. I eagerly await Mayer’s next collection, just to see what he does next.
About the Reviewer
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared in Tin House's Open Bar, Ploughshares blog, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, and more. Her website is cherylpappas.net.