"On the average night we're musicians and magicians, entertaining the worn-out hippies, lapsed Catholics, and world-weary punks of small town America. Everything is plagiarized, but creative plagiarism can be amusing." So states Francis Catherine, a.k.a. Frankka, the protagonist of Ariel Gore's novel The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show (HarperSanFrancisco, May 2006)
Gore is best known for her fanzine Hip Mama and its accompanying survival guides. Her writings have reminded mothers everywhere that even non-traditional family values are acceptable and can, indeed, be meaningful ways of rearing children in this chaotic world. Her latest book is fiction, and takes the reader on a very different journey than Gore has attempted before.
The novel follows a band of misfit performers along the West Coast, with stops in familiar places like the Pig N' Pancake in Astoria, Oregon. The group is made up of a drag queen who dresses as a nurse and levitates; a daring young diva on a flying trapeze; a psychic single mom and her child; a fire-breather, and an accompanist (who channels John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, although one might imagine the gentlemen from Slim Cessna's Auto Club providing the music for this show). The characters have banded together and created a show that is part sideshow act, part redemption tale. The whole operation is centered on the talents of Frankka, a stigmatic who has the ability to conjure blood to seep from her palms at will. The question of the authenticity of this unique talent creates the tension that threatens to break up the offbeat family unit, after a reporter gains access to the secrets of the show and lands Frankka on the front page of the LA Times. Not surprisingly, a small furor erupts which forces Frankka away from her group and sends her on a solo journey. It is the conflict of the fringe meeting the mainstream.
Part of the novel includes Frankka's own hagiography, in which she recounts her versions of the lives of the saints. Her recollection of the teachings of Catholicism parallels the situations of the characters nicely. Gore uses the quiet voice of someone in the midst of re-structuring the beliefs that she has spent a lifetime challenging. As the character of Frankka states to open the book and set the stage: "Was Catholic? Dream on. Fallen or faithful, what are you going to do? You're given a mythology in this life, the way you're given a body, a family, a country. You can reject it if you like--starve it, laugh in its face, run away into exile--but it's still your mythology. There's always the chance for redemption."
Gore is a strong writer. Her characters are drawn from the contemporary realm of the self-educated, hipster fringe of society that insists on finding their own way through this life. The descriptions of the show, and of how the group found one another are enchanting. The story falters a bit when Frankka heads to Tahoe--doesn't everything?--but Gore still manages to pull the novel together. At times, she even approaches a state of ecstasy.