You generally know what you're in for with Feisty Old Gal lit. Whether it's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, or innumerable others, the reader can confidently expect crankily idiosyncratic woolgathering, unsentimental reminiscences of old love, salty interludes, and passing glimpses of celebrity as the once-famous parade by. Bygone times, we invariably learn, were sort of better than today and sort of worse. The genre's ironies tend toward the easy end of the spectrum--they had sex in the olden days. And liked it. Talked dirty, too!
Still, there are ample pleasures available in such novels: voices fully imagined, daily reality thoroughly plumbed, the distinct particularity of each person forcefully underlined. On those terms, Robert Hough's novel, an award-winner in Canada, is an entirely honorable contribution to the field. Rippling with brawny energy, its prose tangy with regret and pride, the book gives off the smells and tastes of circus-world exuberance. When we meet Mabel Stark (a real person, by the way, most famous between 1910 and the mid-1920s), it is 1968 and she is about 80 years old. She's nervous that a personality clash with her idiotic new employers will get her fired from her sedate job at JungleLand, one of the last remaining old-time circuses.
So she begins sorting through the past, doing her best to work out what her life has amounted to. In her early days Mabel was someone things happened to, seemingly without her input or even presence: Born Mary Haynie in Kentucky and orphaned by the age of 15, she became Mary Aganosticus by marrying the first man with whom she had a sexual experience, got institutionalized at 18 by her sexually frustrated husband, fled with the help of the first therapist in the state to utilize Freud, joined a carnival, married again (Mary Williams), and left her genteel but sexually inert second husband before being discovered while doing a fan dance. Her secret, according to one impresario, was that "there's a bitterness in you. It makes the rubes think there'd be trouble were they to mess with you so naturally that's the one idea that gets planted in their head and won't go away."
Seeking to better herself, Mary, now calling herself Mabel ("a handle that just popped out of my mouth in front of a carnival owner in a place called Yuba City"), brazens her way into big-cat training with her third husband, Louis Roth. It is here that she finds a method of continually courting danger that renders her life both sensible and meaningful. Hodge masterfully evokes the bloody attractions of this career, with enough detail to convince you he's done his homework but not so much that it slows the story: The first time she sticks her head in a lion's mouth, Mabel "felt myself go dead calm, for at that moment there was no question what was going to get me--was going to be the jaws of a lion, reeking of tartar and animal flesh going to rot...and in this certainty was a warmth difficult to describe." From there she gains her greatest fame, putting on a wrestling act with a tiger named Rajah that sounds, from these descriptions, both immensely exciting and insanely dangerous.
Of course, from there it's mostly downhill, with Mabel mourning the gradual eclipse of a way of life (and those who shared it with her). Yet despite the essential madness of her world, Hough does the old gal proud, paying tribute to her ferocious life force. More than that, he renders her understandable, loveable, even heroic--someone who never gave up on the promise of this world, even when a tiger was gnawing at her insides.