Chapter Excerpt

Lives of the Circus Animals

Chapter One

"You want strangers to love you?"

There was another long pause. "No," he said. "I just don't want them to hate me."

"And who do you think hates you, Kenneth?"

"Oh, everyone."

She laughed, much to his surprise. Her laughter was thin and professional, but not unfriendly.

"I'm joking, of course. Most people don't know me from the man in the moon. And it's not real hate. Not really. Even from people who do know me. It's fun hate. Faux hate. I'm the man-they-love-to-hate." He sighed. "Oh, all right. Yes. It does get to me. Sometimes."

"Of course," said Dr. Chin. "We'd all rather be loved."

She sat in an armchair, a mild, round-faced woman in a ruffled blouse, under a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a skull in a desert.

Kenneth Prager sat on the sofa—the far end of the sofa—tall and lean in a charcoal gray suit. This was his first time in therapy, his second session. Forty-four years old, he had managed to avoid this rite of passage until now. He was not enjoying it. Not only did Chin expect him to do most of the talking, but she also refused to let him have the last word. His livelihood was built on having the last word.

He took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "They call me the Buzzard of Off-Broadway."

This time she didn't laugh but looked concerned, even hurt, for his sake. "And how does that make you feel?"

"Oh, I was flattered. At first. All right, somewhat miffed. A predecessor was called the Butcher of Broadway, so it's old material. When you get mocked, you want the jokes to be more original."

She wrote something on her notepad. He feared his flippancy revealed more than he knew.

"But that's not the cause of my depression," he said. "If it is depression. I don't feel guilty about my work. My caring what people think is just a symptom, not a cause."

Therapy was his wife's idea. Gretchen had grown tired of his glum spirits, his sour sorrow. He couldn't understand his unhappiness either. His life could not be better. He had a loving wife, a pretty daughter, a good job, even a dash of fame. He was only second critic at the Times, but strangers recognized his name if not his face. He should be happy. But he wasn't. This failure of happiness worried him. If the achievement of so much in life could not make one happy, then why bother living?

"I love my work," he insisted. "I've always loved theater. The immediacy of it. Real human presences. I enjoyed reviewing movies well enough, which I did for three years. But I was only third-stringer there and saw too much trash: horror-slasher-teen pics and such. So I was overjoyed when they moved me to drama. Where I'd always wanted to be. The unease didn't set in until after New Year's. I thought it'd pass, or I'd get used to the strangeness, but the strangeness only got stranger. Back in March, Bickle, the first reviewer, went into the hospital for heart surgery. So a few plums fell into my lap, including the big new Disney bomb, Pollyanna. Everyone panned it, not just me. We were all surprised when Disney pulled the plug. Nevertheless, I was the one who got congratulated for killing the beast. Which felt odd. Then there was a new play by the author of Venus in Furs. Everyone wanted it to be good. I know I did. But it wasn't. It was called Chaos Theory and was about madness and mathematics. I think it was really about AIDS—the author is gay—which I said in my review. But it was just so self-indulgent and preachy. It closed too. This time I got hate mail. Floods of it. From people calling me callous and homophobic. And I'm not homophobic. I'm in theater, for pete's sake. Well, not in it, but of it."

Chin was looking down at her notepad, without writing. Her pencil quivered. Had she read his review? Did she adore the play? She thought he was homophobic?

"So --" He hurried back to the real subject. "I was relieved when Bick returned and I was number two again. It took the pressure off.

But nothing's felt the same since. The strangeness returned. It felt worse than ever. Nothing has any savor anymore. Everything feels gray. I'm not sure what I want anymore."

She flipped through her notes, as if she'd lost her place. "You want to be number one again," she said idly, as if it were too obvious to mention.

He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "Yes, no, yes," he replied. "I should want Bick's job, shouldn't I?"

"You don't?"

"There's talk of retiring him. They need a replacement, which is why they moved me over to drama. As a test. And I wanted the job. Once. But I don't anymore. Only—I don't not want it either. I'm not sure what I want anymore."

She studied him with her round, smooth, full face. Kenneth couldn't tell if her stillness masked sympathy or disapproval. She seemed so cheerfully impersonal. In a less politically aware age, he could've thought of her as an inscrutable motherly Buddha.

"Like I said," she offered. "You want people to love you."

"Isn't that a silly thing for grown-ups to want? Especially someone in my line of work."

She shrugged—"silly" was irrelevant here. "Maybe if you praised more and criticized less?" she proposed. "Would you feel better about yourself then?"

He stared at her. "But I'm a critic. I'm paid to criticize."

"Aren't you also paid to praise?"

Lives of the Circus Animals. Copyright © by Christopher Bram. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Lives of the Circus Animals: A Novel by Christopher Bram
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