4 out of 4 stars
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The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid by Gary Robinson is a thrilling tale based on the true story of two social outcasts who lived in the moment. The first half of the book is about Duke Reynolds, the Sword Swallower. He ran away to the circus at the ripe old age of 15 where he learned several different acts until he graduated to sword swallowing. His story goes through his life in the circus, his incarceration for safe cracking, and his life after the circus. The second half of the book revolves around Gary Robinson, a Chico kid. Gary’s story revolves around his drinking problem, which also began at the age of 15. After graduating high school at the top of his class, he fell into the frat boy party lifestyle where his excessive drinking and partying resulted in him barely passing college. Gary ends up in Chico, California for a graduation party and spontaneously decides to stay since he had no future or job prospects waiting for him anywhere else. Over the next 10 years, Gary works a lot of temp jobs while struggling with his alcoholism. The last part of the book covers the small time period that both Gary and Duke’s paths collide.
I found it interesting that the book showed a lot of similarities between Duke and Gary even though they grew up in different time periods and with different opportunities. Both men started something that would change their lives at the age of 15. They both “medicated” themselves in order to function such alcohol and cocaine for Gary’s or meth for Duke. They both lived in the now without any regard or planning for the future while doing stunts like sword swallowing or having people staple five dollar bills to their chest to pay the bills.
The author also did a really good job at demonstrating the similarities between life at the circus and the party life culture in fraternities. They both have a subset of people who strive to entertain the masses. For the circus, this role falls mostly to the clowns who dress in oversized clothing and ridiculous makeup while doing a variety of stupid and crazy stunts. In contrast, a drunken cokehead lying on his back making different fart noises under the guise of “the fart game” for a large group of people brings about the same effect. Hazing potential members by making them think they had to have sex with a goat was treated in the same way as the circus tricking people into thinking they had a chicken that could eat men but instead was just a man whom was eating fried chicken.
There wasn’t anything I really disliked about the book. There were a few minor grammatical errors but otherwise I could find nothing bad to say. There were times the book swept me up into its plotline and made me want to just run away to the circus despite all the downsides that were mentioned. The descriptions were so good that I felt like I was sitting in the audience watching Duke swallow a sword or “cure allergies” with a penny nail. Some of the advice given especially towards the end of the book was so deep that it really touched my soul. The book was so good that it lingered in my mind for hours after I had finished.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars because of the up and down struggle both main characters went through yet they both ended up in a good place at the end of their plotlines. I really connected with a lot of what Duke said throughout the book. One piece that really sticks out is on page 359 when Duke tells Gary, "[t]his life will not promise you anything. All you have is today. This moment. Yesterday is just a memory and tomorrow is not guaranteed. All you have is this moment. Make sure you try to live as much as you can everyday. Follow your heart, son…". The concept of living in the moment and following your heart made a big impression on me. I am in a point in my life similar to Gary after he met Duke where I’m just trying to figure out what to do going forward. This book helped boost my confidence to go after an old passion and to make the best of everyday. There are quite a few curse words and risqué situations that might not be for everyone. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in circus stories.
The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid
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