Not Clowning Around
Monica Drake's debut isn't baloney
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
CLOWN GIRL, fiction by Monica Drake. Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2006. Paperback, $15.95.
Sniffles lives in Baloneytown, in the sunroom of a house belonging to her ex, Herman. Herman's current ladyfriend of sorts, Nadia-Italia (Sniffles can't keep her name straight), isn't exactly welcoming to Sniffles, who is battling the outside world and her own tangled ideals in search of a life that will let her practice her art — including her clown interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis.
Clown Girl is Portlander Monica Drake's first novel, and it's easy to imagine something of the City of Roses in Sniffles' world, where Baloneytown residents hide from the cops and men from King's Row pay top dollar for dates with clowns. There are clown fetishists and clown haters; there are questionable jobs for clowns and places where clown-bashing is a danger. Sniffles, when the book begins, is working from the manual Balloon Tying for Christ when she faints, starting off a chain of unfortunate events. A nice cop who smells of cinnamon helps her up and then keeps reappearing; doctors tell her different things are wrong with her; her friend Crank sets up iffy jobs that bring in money but destroy Sniffles' spirit; she loses her precious rubber chicken and her dog, Chance. Her lover, Rex Galore, is in the Bay Area auditioning for Clown College, and she hasn't yet had the heart to tell him that right after he left, she had a miscarriage.
And that's not even half of it. Drake's imagination is boundless, her compassion intense. No matter how absurd a situation this antiheroine gets herself into, it's impossible not to will her to get back out. The strange world that Drake creates in Clown Girl is peculiarity entrancing and wholly, vividly imagined: You can substitute any put-upon, impoverished, outside-the-mainstream or even simply imperfect sort of individual or group for her clowns, or you can read Clown Girl as a gorgeous mix of character study and unlikely manifesto about the artist's place in the world. Sniffles — Nita, the rare times she uses her real name, or Clown Girl to Nadia-Italia — is lost in a world that doesn't know what to do with her, but she's also lost in her own world, the one where juggling flaming torches in the backyard at 4 am is nothing to bat an eye at. The world won't make room for Sniffles, so she has to make room for the world, even the parts of it that she's always run away from. She is the one who has to open her eyes, put down the valerian and leave the nest — or, in this case, the clown-costume stuffed antique ambulance.
Monica Drake reads at 7 pm Thursday, March 8 at the UO Bookstore.
BOOK NOTES: Jerry Oltion speaks on "Science Fiction Demystified," 6:30 pm 3/1, Baker Downtown Center. $10; Willamette Writers members free. Dorianne Laux reads from Facts About the Moon and Laton Carter reads from Leaving, 7 pm 3/6, Knight Library, UO. Tad Williams reads from Shadowplay, 7 pm 3/6, Powell's in Beaverton. Malidoma Some discusses Of Water and the Spirit, 7 pm 3/7, Tsunami Books. Monica Drake reads from Clown Girl, 7 pm 3/8, UO Bookstore. Ellen Klages reads from The Green Glass Sea, 2 pm 3/10, Powell's on Burnside, Portland. Kevin Young reads, 7:30 pm 3/12, First Congregational Church, Portland. $18, $14 stu., sr., $5 youth. Jennifer Baumgardner reads from Look Both Ways, 7:30 pm 3/13, Powell's on Burnside, Portland. Tim Flannery reads from The Weather Makers, 7 pm 3/14, Powell's in Beaverton. Mary Gaitskill and George Saunders speak at 7:30 pm 3/15, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. $26, $20 stu., sr., $5 youth. William Vollman reads from Poor People, 7:30 pm 3/15, Powell's on Burnside, Portland.