4 out of 4 stars
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The Sword Swallower and A Chico Kid
by Gary Robinson
Sometimes the best way to find redemption in life is to redeem the life of someone else. Such is the basic theme of Gary Robinson's fine autobiographical novel, The Sword Swallower and A Chico Kid. Arranged in three sections, the novel follows the convergent paths of Duke Reynolds, circus performer and professional sword swallower, and Gary Robinson, a hard-drinking, drug-using, wayward college kid in Chico, CA. The first section, beginning in the late 1960's, introduces us to Reynolds, whose alcohol- and drug-infused lifestyle is presented in stark yet humorous fashion. After giving us a look at Reynold's life between circus gigs, we meet the other members of his circus family and learn something of Reynold's origins. Robinson does an excellent job of portraying circus life and the denizens of the Big Top in spare yet sympathetic prose. Reynold's nomadic, unorthodox lifestyle is captured nicely as we follow his career from the late Sixties until his disastrous final performance on the Jerry Springer Show in the 1990's.
In section two we meet Gary Robinson, young, unambitious, whose interests appear to consist of alcohol, drugs, and sex, in no particular order. Despite a promising start as student body president in high school, Gary has been battling his personal demons since age 15, a battle that culminates in a raucous graduation speech which nets him a horrific beating. Gary later sums up this painful last day of high school with a quote from Burt Lancaster: "Sometimes I only succeed in beating myself to death." Anxious to escape an abusive homelife, Gary embarks on a life of drug- and alcohol-fueled escapades that climaxes with an impromptu orgy at a museum, resulting in the destruction of a prized woolly mammoth exhibit. Although declared innocent of any serious wrongdoing at his subsequent trial, it is this incident and the immediate aftermath that impels Gary to begin writing his demons away. A chance encounter at a café leads to a stint as a paid social worker at a homeless shelter, but his drinking soon puts an end to that, as well. Unemployed and broke at age 35, Gary wanders into a bar where he encounters a heavily-tattooed former circus worker named Duke Reynolds. Impressed by Reynolds' showmanship, Gary hesitantly introduces himself. A bond begins to form between the two men when Reynolds tells him: "You're right, you have no future. You are only promised today. Make sure you start living it now!"
Section three details the mentor-mentee relationship between Reynolds and Gary. For both men the path to redemption is anything but straight. But once Reynolds exposes Gary to the teachings of the noted agnostic, civil rights advocate and freethinker, Robert G. Ingersoll, Gary begins to see a way out of the cycle of alcoholism and drug abuse. And while there are still a few nasty detours to come, the road to healing and recovery eventually reveals itself to Gary.
The Sword Swallower and A Chico Kid is an honest, well-written, thoroughly-engaging addition to the addiction-and-recovery literary genre. Robinson's playful, uninhibited style and fine ear for dialogue come through on every page, while his open, unsparing depiction of the life of an addict has the ring of authenticity. Through moments that range from wonderfully comical to devastatingly sad to achingly sweet, Robinson presents the full range of emotions in clear, powerful prose. Despite one or two barely-noticeable typos, I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars for its unsentimental yet poignant look at the pain of addiction and the joy of redemption
The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid
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