I recently finished reading a novel by Elizabeth McCracken that my beta got for me for my birthday. It's really really good.
The novel takes place starting in the early 1900s and centers around Mose "Mike* Sharp. He has a certain future of becoming a shopkeeper much like his father---until his sister Hattie takes him to a Vaudeville show. From there, he is insistent upon making it in the scene and runs away from home at 16 to join the circuit. Here is where he will meet his partner of 30 years. Rocky Carter is Mike's foil in just about every way, yet they both compliment one another perfectly. Carter is the goofy fat man while Sharp plays his straight man. The duo become movie and radio stars and catapult out of Vaudeville to Hollywood.
McCracken's style of writing is tight and fast paced. The use of the first person makes it seem as if we are sitting down with Sharp as he tells us the tale of his childhood in Des Moines, IA, the personal tragedies his family experienced, the death of his sister Hattie, and the events that take place once he hits Vaudeville. The voice McCracken has given Sharp makes us sympathetic and as we continue further into the story, we forget almost that Sharp is fictional. He and those most important to him become real and leap off the page and into our minds and hearts.
The partnership between Rocky Carter and Mike Sharp is rather, well, rocky. Carter leans toward excess: food, drink, and women. These excesses lead to differences and disputes. Carter makes more money in their partnership and their contract becomes a point of contention, although it's only the surface. Sharp, as he gets into his forties, wishes to retire and Carter wants to get into television. The biggest fight, however, takes place over Sharp's wife Jessica. To strong-arm Sharp into remaining part of the Carter-Sharp team, Rocky threatens to report Jessica to the government for being a Communist. It's the fifties and this threat is real. It's the final straw for Sharp and he refuses to speak with Carter from then on.
As the partnership lies in ruins, Carter and Sharp go on to do solo acting in movies and TV in small parts. Sharp is more successful in his endeavour while Carter is reduced to being on a children's show starring alongside a puppet. Sharp knows that Carter is suffering and struggling to remain relevant. He also knows that Carter needs the partnership to survive. Yet, the anger and resentment against Carter has hardened Sharp enough not to talk to him.
A TV special reuniting the two softens Sharp, but before he can say that they should reform, Carter declares the partnership dead and disappears. It will be years and several tragedies for Sharp before he sees Carter again. After his wife Jessica passes and his sister succumbs to cancer, Sharp has hit the same point Carter hit in the later 50s: rock bottom. Everything is gone and he is wondering what will happen next. Through sheer luck and meeting old acquaintances he has not seen for thirty years, Sharp locates the missing Carter.
It is in this reunion scene that the story becomes bittersweet. Carter and Sharp are in their 70s. There is no hope to restart their career, but is there any for their friendship? It makes the reader hope and yearn for the happy ending, even though we know it will end as Vaudeville had before it. It is in this scene that McCracken makes us feel the story so acutely we mourn the death of their friendship. It is haunting and once the novel closes, we wonder, will there be any way for these two to reconnect and forgive?
Niagara Falls All Over Again is a solid novel from start to finish. It is poetic and moving. It makes the reader want to find a Carter and Sharp movie---although they've never lived. It's this strength that makes McCracken's story so fulfilling and wonderful. And most of all, it's the type of book that reminds us exactly why we read for pleasure.
Until next time,
Far Away Eyes