A ventriloquist’s adventures captivate in ‘The Swan Gondola’

The Swan Gondola. Timothy Schaffert. Riverhead. 465 pages. $27.95.
The Swan Gondola. Timothy Schaffert. Riverhead. 465 pages. $27.95.

The words “Omaha,” “World’s Fair,” and “ventriloquist” might not immediately conjure up the stuff of great fiction. But in his fifth book, Timothy Schaffert has crafted one of the best novels you’ll read all year. At times gently funny, at times melodramatic, The Swan Gondola sweeps readers up into its considerable charms and does not relinquish them until the final paragraph.

The setting is Nebraska in 1898 as an extravagant World’s Fair distracts people from the drudgery of daily life. We’re introduced to our scruffy hero, Ferret Skerritt, a rapscallion with a heart of tin-plated gold, when the hot air balloon he has stolen literally crashes down upon the roof of two lonely spinsters. Emmeline and Hester rescue Ferret and despite the destruction his caper causes, take a strong liking to him as they learn about his tragic predicament.

Ferret scrounges his living doing shows with a beat-up dummy named Oscar, and by writing letters for the lovelorn. With energetic, dryly comic prose, Schaffert vividly portrays Ferret’s ne’er-do-well friends, anarchists who like to “argufy” and are “expert at losing awful jobs.” We learn that one, Rosie the Pole, “now made most of his money selling off French postcards of naked Omaha women,” and can’t help but laugh, especially when the author confides that “he’d do swift business at the Fair with his pictures of Lady Godiva on horseback, Sleeping Beauty sleeping in the buff, Hamlet’s Ophelia having ripped off her clothes in madness, Joan of Arc naked and tied to a stake.” Only a talented novelist could make the images of tragic heroines, depicted naked on cheap postcards, seem hilarious.

Despite his wry take on the world, Ferret falls in love with Cecily, an unmarried mother and burlesque actress who performs with a guillotine in the Chamber of Horrors.

Schaffert imaginatively conjures up the sights and sounds of this lurid scene: “As Marie Antoinette, her head on the block, Cecily had powdered her face stark white and dabbed perfect circles of pink rouge on her cheeks. The lights fell just as the blade trembled. In the darkness you heard the soft, wet give of a cleaver through a melon and the thump of the melon into the bottom of a basket, but you saw, in your mind’s eye, Cecily’s flesh sliced clean through.”

Ferret woos Cecily in a swan-shaped gondola, and appears to win her, along with her baby girl Doxie. For a time he is blissfully happy. Yet, soon rich entrepreneur William Wakefield covets the ventriloquist’s dummy Oscar and then sets his sights on Cecily and her daughter.

Schaffert’s brilliance lies in his ability to humanize all his characters, not just the obviously likeable ones. When Ferret confronts Wakefield for seducing Cecily, the writer reverses our sympathies by having the businessman retort, “You’re not good for her, and you know it. …You were killing her by inches. Keeping her and that baby in that dark dusty room. You don’t even know the difference, do you?”

Schaffert deftly introduces doubt that Ferret could bring happiness to the mother and child, scraping by amid squalor and disease, and he also makes you wonder whether Wakefield’s concern for Cecily and Doxie is genuine. Allusions to L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels crop up, but if you never got further than watching The Wizard of Oz, you’ll still enjoy the book (though you might wonder why Ferret grows so obsessed by an Emerald Cathedral).

What keeps you most riveted, though, are Schaffert’s continued revelations about his characters and the novel’s dramatic action, which includes a kidnapping and the death of a central character.

Whether the ghost of this character actually exists or is yet another sideshow trick is one of the book’s pivotal questions. Ferret visits spiritualists and psychics in Omaha as Schaffert propels readers between skepticism and belief. When Ferret receives letters from the ghost, Schaffert ensures that even the wistful wording makes us question the truth: “Maybe I am only a gimmick after all. A wire and a wheel under a sheet. I hang in a clairvoyant’s cabinet, whistling through a harmonica on cue. But there are worse eternities, I’m guessing. And now your letters will end. And I’ll haunt strangers for a nickel.”

Finally, The Swan Gondola upends our assumptions about human nature and which people are capable of attaining a measure of joy. In the right hands, even a ventriloquist, a world’s fair and Omaha — of all places — can become the stuff of moving fiction.

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.

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