A hundred years on, it’s hard to summarize what the demise of vaudeville meant to entertainers, audiences, and early 20th century pop culture. Many vaudevillians, Keaton and Chaplin among them transitioned into silent pictures; others vanished as if they had never been. Part of vaudeville’s freedom was its impermanence: the show is in town for three nights and that’s it. But vaudeville troupes were also nomadic, roaming from town to town, picking up acts in one town and dropping them in another. Freedom via restless performing.
Stephanie Allen’s debut novel, Tonic and Balm, concerns itself with a medicine show traveling in Pennsylvania during the summer of 1919. The element that distinguishes this show from vaudeville is the sale of dubiously manufactured substances hawked by the show’s mastermind, Doc Bell. Other acts (acrobats, bawdy song-and-dance, comedy) are the same. The novel is a loose collection of stories, each narrated by different characters in the show: a banjo player and his hardened wife, a queer sword-swallower and her Daisy Buchanan-like girlfriend, a disgraced and drunken physician, and—centrally—a young hydrocephalic woman billed as “Sheba, Queen of the Nile.”
This woman, Antoinette, declines in health in tandem with the medicine show’s fortunes. Fewer and fewer people are fooled by Doc Bell’s patter, and the disappearance of a guitar player, Haines, early in the novel causes an emotional fissure among the troupe that nothing can remedy. As the show loses money and fades toward its end, so too does Antoinette, her breath and strength waning. Each story pushes the summer of 1919 along a little further. Allen cleverly marks time with the ripening corn in fields near where the medicine show sets up its tents as well as with Antoinette’s worsening health.
Despite the linear nature of time in the book, the stories feel circular, networked. The towns and nights blur together. Sometimes the show is pretty good, and other times it’s pretty bad, but it’s always the same show. “Same route every season, even when the War was on. Same little towns that seen his show every year for ten or twenty running but hardly got another thing to look forward to.” This sense of repetition is not wearying for the reader, but it deftly communicates the characters’ weariness.
A novel like this is about the people in it, and the multivocal narration of the troupe makes the book resemble its subject. Each new story is another act, another performer. But it’s a deeply sad book, full of heartbreak and injustice. Significantly, Antoinette and the vanished guitar player are both black, and the racism they face is subtle but ever-present, breaking out of subtext only a few times. As an elderly banjo player narrates, “It was like Haines went up in smoke. Except Fleet knew the kinds of goings-on that were happening… In Washington, D.C., they dragged people off trolley cars and set fire to houses with children in them. Jails torn open, colored men chased down like dogs, mobs tearing people to bits.” This is one of the only passages that speaks specifically to what people of color faced, even north of the Mason-Dixon line, in the early 20th century. Otherwise, Allen’s work takes place at eye level, between people, not between societal forces.
She’s also a wonderful writer at the sentence level, as with this detail about Lily, a ticket-seller, being called “ma’am” for the first time: “She walks along the shoulder, handling the word in her mouth, till she tires of it, ridiculous as it is, and spits it in the grass.” Allen communicates odd, middle-ground emotions effectively, such as a teenager’s non-lecherous curiosity about Antoinette: “He would like to touch [her head], not in the groping way the spectators in the tent want to, but to know about it. She is like nobody he has ever met before.” Antoinette is a difficult character to communicate, but the novel still revolves around her effectively.
Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show is a collection of the unwanted, for one reason or another. It’s the misfits who create circus acts and vaudeville, the people with weird talents and skills not suited to any workplace. The decline of the medicine show in Tonic and Balm means that these characters have to find somewhere else to go, some other way to make a home and a living. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, as the show isn’t really healthy for any of its performers, and certainly not for its “medicine”-buying audience. But the book still treats the more general turn of entertainment toward recorded, non-nomadic forms as a sorrow. It’s an unusual book on an unusual topic, and a fine fictional chronicle of a lost art.
Publisher: Shade Mountain Press
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron