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The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

by Robert Hough

Journalist Robert Hough has played an ironic joke on himself in his first novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. Stark was one of history’s most famous tiger trainers, and her act was the centre-ring finale during the heyday of the Ringling brothers’ circus in the 1920s and ’30s. Stark did things with tigers no one thought possible, or palatable. She wrestled them and, as a measure of control, even masturbated them.
In 1968, after being forcibly retired from her trade, Stark committed suicide. These facts and many others, Hough informs in an afterword, were culled from archives at the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin. The novel pieces them together into a very long fictional suicide note for Stark.
Very long? The Final Confession is so ploddingly researched, so laden with meandering lists, so overly descriptive and heavily journalistic that it’s liable to leave the reader’s head aching. Worse, where there were no facts, Hough’s invention is often flimsy, offering cartoonish characterizations and gimmicky dialogue.
There is one thing about this novel that is immeasurably seductive: tigers. Every time tigers appear (and it is too infrequent) it is as though we are reading a different book. The writing comes alive. The pace quickens. The lens takes focus. Which leads to the ironic joke: just as it was for tigers that Mabel Stark lived, it is for tigers that we read on.
But the joke is actually on the reader. When, late in the book, Stark experiences a sunset epiphany, we balk. Grasping for themes, Hough chooses to compromise her experiences in order to pitch tent in the “don’t worry, be happy” camp of writers like Tom Robbins and Milan Kundera. Lacking the skill of such writers, however, Hough diminishes Stark and her tigers to mere vehicles for babbling, reductive “philosophies.” The reader, like Mabel Stark, wanted tigers; Hough, like the barker who continues his pitch long after the ticket is sold, seems too captivated by his own patter to notice.