Most circus memoirs are written by performers or showmen. But it doesn’t matter how good a show is if there’s no audience to see it.
Jamie MacVicar’s book lifts the lid on the life of the promotions men who travel to cities two or three months ahead of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to make sure arenas that hold 12,000 or 20,000 people are packed night after night for the arrival of the Greatest Show on Earth.
The suit-clad advance men may not be as glamorous as the grease-painted performers, but their work is every bit as high stakes and just as skilled. Their job is not just to buy TV, radio, print and billboard advertising, but to multiply the effect of their cash spend by trading tickets for additional ads and arranging promotions that result in a snowstorm of publicity.
MacVicar shows us this world of modern day hucksterism through the eyes of an ambitious trainee and as his narrative unfolds day-by-day, scene-by-scene and conversation-by-conversation, The Advance Man reads more like a novel than a memoir.
Weaving an atmosphere of immediacy rather than reflection, he gives us the sense of being in the office with these guys as deals are hammered out; in windowless backstage rooms as tickets are counted; and in his “beyond seedy” room at the Piccadilly Inn where the relentless pressure builds.
The book appeals on many levels. Circus fans will enjoy visiting backstage where MacVicar carries Michu, the smallest man in the world, to interviews and gets charmed into giving free tickets to the actor Cary Grant.
Anyone interested in sales and marketing - and anyone charged with promoting a circus today - will get a master class in the nuts and bolts of the game.
There’s also a gripping human story here as the young MacVicar’s endless drive eventually propels him to risk his sanity for his “numbers,” the way the high-wire walkers and lion tamers wager their physical being for applause. And, just like the performers in the ring, for the advance man there’s no safety net.
In any book, it’s not so much the story as the way it’s written that creates a satisfying read and it’s in this area that MacVicar delivers with the zeal that drove him during his time with Ringling.
He goes beyond his personal memories to provide us with well-researched digressions into the history of the show’s founders, the Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum; and some of its stars from Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, to Gargantua, the fabled gorilla.
We get a lengthy reflection on the lives of a previous generation of advance men at the dawn of the 20th century - “Would we have been able to adapt to each other’s world? I’d never know. Would we have liked one another? Undeniably.”
There are also insightful passages on small town life, suburbia and the inner city - all viewed by a traveller not sure if he wants to belong or is glad he doesn’t. Such moments give this book depth and, in places, a kind of poetry. They make it more than a book about the circus but a book about America, with a coming-of-age story thrown in. I was reminded of Steinbeck.