4 out of 4 stars
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It's not every day that a renowned circus performer and frat boy become best friends. The Sword Swallower and the Chico Kid is a complex story of adventure, friendship, and brokenness. Duke Reynolds is a larger-than-life circus star, addicted to meth, alcohol, and the circus lifestyle. Gary Robinson is a college kid turned failed professional addicted to alcohol and being withdrawn. We follow these two men separately before chance brings them together in Part Three.
Duke's story is full of adventure in the traveling circus. The author craftily describes what is a larger-than-life experience in such a grounded way that the reader can't help but connect with Duke. Through his magnificent performances and adventures, what drives him is his search to find meaning in his life, to understand his place in the world.
The character Gary is after the same thing. Gary wants to be on good terms with his understanding of God, but he finds himself partying, hooking up, getting into trouble, and not connecting with anyone. He is lonely, trapped in addiction, with no idea where to begin. Luckily, he finds himself in a bar where a much older Duke Reynolds is performing. Gary takes a risk and drops everything to learn from Duke.
The storytelling is perfect. First, we follow Duke as a young man until later in his career. Part Two follows Gary from college onward, and the reader can't help but compare and contrast these two stories. Just as Gary hits rock bottom, the two men meet, and their conversations on work, religion, and love become healing for both of them.
The author tells their stories seamlessly. He paints the world of the circus in an understandable, relatable way, and though Duke's story is action-packed, the author keeps him grounded. Duke and Gary are relatable and fascinating. It's at once a philosophical story and an easy read with nuggets of wisdom and historical fiction, like getting a behind-the-scenes look at the tattoo culture of the 1940s to the present.
The symbolism in this story is beautiful. Take this quote for example, "[Duke] never felt at ease with the normalcy of modern living; he preferred to live for the moment with no real plan for tomorrow." Fear of normalcy kept him in the circus, but it also kept him in his addiction. This is true for both Duke and Gary. Their lifestyles and their addictions keep them in a downward spiral: they both grew up in tumultuous homes, so they never knew 'normal'; because they feared the 'normal and mundane', they chased after addictive behaviors. This is an insightful view at not just addiction but human behavior.
This book is well told with fascinating characters, and I rate it 4 out of 4 stars. The Sword Swallower and the Chico Kid is a must-read. I can't wait to see what Robinson writes in the future.
The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid
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