Life behind the scenes at Rowland’s World Class Circus – the setting of Calgary writer Niall Howell’s striking debut novel – is a far cry from the bright lights and laughter of the big top. The backstage world is one of long-simmering resentments and borderline squalor, of cheating and lying and secrets, of momentary post-show highs countered with long-lasting hangovers and an overarching sadness and desperation.
At the centre of Howell’s story is Toby, a former trapeze artist who is forced to watch, every night, as his former partner Genevieve takes to the air with Toby’s rival, Andrew. Toby, stuck at second on the bill, is relegated to painting on a happy face and clowning for the children. Toby is a bitter, self-righteous curmudgeon, waiting for his chance to get even or get out. Or, preferably, both.
Only Pretty Damned is a stark, powerful noir, steeped in the stifling heat of the American South and building slowly, inexorably, to a boil. The writing is parsed and clean, simultaneously direct while often, like the best magic tricks, concealing as much as it reveals.
Most of this is due to Howell’s handling of Toby’s point of view. While the story unfolds in the first person, giving the reader immediate access to Toby’s thoughts and impressions, Howell largely avoids references to his protagonist’s inner feelings. The technique serves as emotional greasepaint: despite seeming to reveal everything, the disgruntled clown remains a cipher, his true expressions hidden and occluded. It’s a somewhat risky approach and one that demands much of the reader, as their confidence in the first-person voice is gradually undercut, their understanding shaken. The world may not, in fact, be quite as Toby sees it.
The true force of the stylistic choice becomes clear as the novel builds to its climax, which is stark and devastating precisely because of the author’s understatement and the resultant gap in the reader’s understanding. It’s a breathtaking moment and a powerful cap to an impressive debut.