By Robert Jackson Bennett
Published by Orbit Books
Released February 21, 2012
Paperback | Kindle
Holy Author of Creation! Robert Jackson Bennett‘s latest book, The Troupe, is the wondrous and heartrending tale of 16-year-old George Carole, a gifted pianist whose mother died in childbirth and who is on a quest to find the father he’s never known. After reluctantly telling George that his father is in show business, he leaves his nagging grandmother to work at Otterman’s theater in the hopes of finding him one day. As soon as he learns his father’s traveling vaudeville troupe, The Famous Silenus Troupe, is performing in the nearby town of Parma, George quits his job and jumps on a train.
What he notices first as he steps off the train is that tiny Parma is creepy. The quality of light is all wrong and there’s an extra-dark darkness that hovers over the town. As he gets close to the hotel where the troupe is staying, George notices something else – all the sounds of the world die out and a mysterious man in a gray suit emerges from the thickening shadows. He heads straight for George and asks him about Heironimo Silenus.
Sensing the man seeks to harm his maybe-daddy, George tells him nothing. He rushes to the theater to warn Silenus and gets there just as the oddest show he’s ever experienced during all his time as a vaudeville pianist begins. He sits through the show utterly mystified yet still anxious to meet the man he’s 99% certain is his father. When he finally does, he gets much more than he bargained for. His attempts to warn Silenus about the man in gray backstage after the show are met with contempt and dismay that George is still fully awake after the last act. This is no ordinary show, for sure, and George is no ordinary member of the audience. The troupe knows that right off the bat. George is just confused.
And so what begins as one boy’s journey into manhood becomes a whole other tale altogether. The Troupe is no ordinary group of performers for they, too, are on a quest and existence – all of life – depends on their success. Silenus is not exactly the father figure George had in mind and is neither whom nor what he appears to be and neither is Stanley, Silenus’s ever-present silent right-hand man. Franny, the strongwoman, is something altogether different and the ventriloquist act may be no act after all. This leaves only the beautiful and talented, but tempestuous Collette for George to turn to for friendship, which quickly deepens into a hard crush.
As is true in real life, so must be true in a story about life, which The Troupe really is. The best laid plans fall by the wayside and new, more urgent actions take precedence. In this case, a showdown between the Light and the Dark, Creation and Anti-Creation, changes everything for everyone in the troupe. Some truths are revealed a little too late to do some of the members any good, while others help to heal ancient wounds.
It has been said that Bennett’s work is like Stephen King and John Steinbeck rolled into one. I haven’t read Steinbeck in years, but I can see why the comparison to King has been drawn. The characters in The Troupe are endearing in their oddness and even in the bad ones there is good which struggles to break free from dark shackles. But the main theme here, as with so many King stories, is the basic boil-down to good versus not-good. I can’t really say evil here because the anti-creation forces see their goal as the only just course of action. They’ve been displaced by the creation of the world and they’re quite put off by it to say the least.
Told with affection and vivid prose, The Troupe submerges you in a world of time out of mind and place, and makes you wonder what the hell it’s all about, this life on Earth business; whom or what exactly put us all here and why? Will it ever end? Could it? While you may not find answers to the Big Questions here, The Troupe will certainly keep you enthralled until its very satisfying end.
Robert Jackson Bennett is also the author of Mr. Shivers and The Company Man. The Troupe is his third novel. A fourth as-yet untitled book is forthcoming – an excerpt of which I read at the end of The Troupe – and promises to be good and creepy and exceedingly well-written. This Book Slave has found a new favorite author here! Learn more about Robert Jackson Bennett here.