4 out of 4 stars
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Gary Robinson captures the soul of addiction in his novel The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid by following the stories of Duke Reynolds and telling some of his own journey. Unlike many other books, where only the damage of drugs or addiction is mentioned, the author illustrates the frustrating setbacks and rationalization found in addiction as shown through Duke and his life experiences. Duke believes that shooting meth will rot your brain, but snorting meth is medicinal. Gary can never pull his life together and makes one drug related mistake after another.
The author weaves a story of circus life that is full of showmanship and need to impress an audience with something never before seen. Duke is a sword swallower, but he also gets his body tattooed to increase his appeal in the circus. During off seasons and after the circus closes, he uses his talents to perform on street corners and for small groups. Duke is very savvy in understanding how an audience will think or react to a sentence or movement and how his act is perceived. Gary is a drifter and rarely manages to keep his life on track long enough to succeed or find love. Gary decides on a whim to move to a small town north of Sacramento called Chico where he manages to drink, do drugs, and generally find trouble.
The best parts of the book were also sometimes the hardest to read. The characters are deeply flawed and make poor choices while under the influence. Both Gary and Duke seem oblivious to the pain and destruction their actions cause in their own lives and to those in proximity. Predictably, both of their lives improve after they stop drinking. Duke is less than impressed when Gary shows up at his house with alcohol, and Duke’s contempt for inebriation helps Gary make fundamental changes in who he is and how he lives his life.
I have two complaints about The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid. The first would be how the author introduced himself. Perhaps it is because Gary’s story is based on the author’s own life experiences, so he didn’t feel the need to provide as many details, but the character lacks the same relatability and depth as Duke. The second complaint is a lack of realism in the stunts or antics. The preface clearly states this is a fictional account and made up, but the adventures of Gary are more inconceivable at times than Duke's. Duke made mistakes, but at least he never was found as a security guard in a closet having sex while his friend ate a museum’s prize mammoth.
The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid takes the reader on a fascinating ride through addiction and turning a life around. I have rated the book 4 out of 4 stars with some qualifications. The main characters struggle with addiction. Some readers might be uncomfortable with the casual sex and drug use found throughout the novel. Neither character is particularly repentant for their use of illegal substances and both do not seem to notice any harm caused to others. Also, if you are looking for a factually accurate circus book, this novel seems heavily exaggerated. The author warns the reader of the fictional nature, but there is a strong need for the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.
The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid
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