Book Editor Tries to Run Away with Carnival (Publishers Weekly)
By Claiborne Smith
PW Daily for Booksellers
Book of the Day: Carnival Undercover! by Bret Witter
Published June 16, 2003
The many radio hosts who have been interviewing Bret Witter, the author of Carnival Undercover (Plume), tend to follow similar lines of inquiry. They all ask for the low-down on how to win the Ring Toss and other befuddling carnival games, and they want to know what it's like to be a carny. Witter can expound on the former (while playing the Milk Can Toss, for example, you should throw the ball softly, without much arc), but demurs when it comes to the actual experience. The former Avon Books editor never did run away with the carnival.
His new book, however, is the product of someone who has managed to turn an obsession with carnivals, amusement parks and state fairs into something engaging, comprehensive and amusing, but not condescending, about its subject. "It's a little of an outsider perspective," Witter says, "as opposed to someone who's really close to it and really into the life one way or the other. I'm trying to be honest about the experience. I tried to not use the words "I" or "we" at all, ever in the book, because I didn't want it to be "Bret's Carnival Experience." The approach seems to have worked: Barnes & Noble stores placed the book on their prominently displayed Odds & Ends tables, Plume has gone back for a second printing, and Witter appeared on ABC's Good Morning America when a girl tragically died on a roller coaster this spring.
Carnival Undercover, which has a greater page count than you might imagine, is divided into six chapters, each of which has a multitude of short, snappy segments. "Thrills, Chills, and Kills: Carnival Rides Revealed," for example, has sections titled "How to Spot a Spine-Cracker," "G-Force and the Brain Scrambler" and "Romance on the Rides," in which Witter, atop a Ferris wheel, finds inspiration in a setting others might scorn: "The air is refreshingly odor-free at that altitude," he writes, "and the view is often magnificent: Cattle lowing in the 4-H barn, haystacks casting evening shadows, the long line of taillights on the cars leaving the fair...."
Other chapters cover the vaunted history (and plausibility) of freaky sideshows, the life of a carny and carnival food. Carnival Undercover is a thoroughly reader-friendly book, with copious illustrations that reveal the tricky physics of carnival games and cheekily demonstrate, for example, how to dress right and how to dress wrong at the amusement park (if you need a lesson, however, maybe you should practice at home first. Readers learn how to replicate the most popular carnival food offerings at home, how to reduce the likelihood of being swindled at the carnival and how to get hired at the carnival.
Our research indicates that Carnival Undercover is the first book to ever feature a section titled "Make It at Home: Shrunken Head" (with the following advice: "Real shrunken heads have very long hair, since hair doesn't shrink. Keep that in mind while decorating your shriveled monstrosity").
In Huntsville, Alabama, where Witter grew up, it is a matter of some dispute in the Witter family whether the author became obsessed with amusement parks at the age of five or six. Witter says he was six, and that it happened at the North Alabama State Fair. "I was walking in the front gate and there was a pony there and then there was this big glass cube," he recalled. "There was this guy just sitting there in the cube and he had a giant bee beard made up of thousands of bees. I think this was a big thing in the '70s. And I was just like, 'That is the coolest thing I have ever seen! Carnivals are awesome!'"
"My father doesn't like that," Witter pointed out. "He thinks it should be the year before, when we went to the Shreveport State Fair in Louisiana. We were on The Bullet and we were in a cage circling around so we'd be upside down half the time and it stopped when we were upside down. We were there for like five minutes and I was screaming and having a great time and he was terrified the whole time."
Witter found his milieu: anyplace that was a carnival, whether it was actually called a carnival, a circus, a state fair or Six Flags. In Carnival Undercover, Witter writes about Gibsonton, Florida, which used to be the winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus but whose population is now mostly retired carnies. "Gibsonton's got the spirit of the carnival," he writes, "and once you've got the carnival under your skin you can never, ever wash it away."--Claiborne Smith
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