“City of Clowns” by Daniel Alarcon

For week 34 of Deal Me in 2015, I drew the Queen of Spades, which I had assigned to the story “City of Clowns” from Daniel Alarcon’s acclaimed collection “War by Candlelight”. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that WHEN you read a particular story or book can have a huge impact on how much you like it. Some works of fiction are best if struck when the iron is hot. Either the iron was hot when I read Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” this week, or Alarcon may just be a really great writer. Probably both are true. I found myself transported from my workaday, rat-race mood to the country of Peru, which I’ve never visited but have read about often. I remember being fascinated by the Inca civilization when I was a young history student, and I still want to see Machu Picchu. Maybe someday…

Alarcon names a ton of places and things that I’m hearing of for the first time, and yet somehow a sense of home is communicated to me by reading. Amazing. The story takes place against the backdrop of a crumbling Peruvian government that Oscar, our narrator, is privileged to know the circumstances of because he works in the press. In these already troubled times he also learns of the death of his estranged father, who he has more or less disowned for many reasons, one of which was when he learned the father was leading a double life, with another woman with whom he even fathered other children. (It seems hookers are morally okay with Oscar – who made use of them – but not an “entire affair” like his father running off with this Carmela.)

Queen of spades image from: https://store.stoneycreek.com/mystic-stitch-c312.aspx

The death of his father doesn’t immediately effect him that much – after all he hadn’t been a part of the narrator’s life for many years. But so what? He was once a major part of it and naturally also had a major role in shaping the kind of man he was to become. Sent to interview street performing clowns by his paper, the absurdity of the “story” Oscar is working on strangely tugs at him and he experiences a catharthis regarding his father’s passing.

“…the idea of it made me sad: clowns with their absurd and artless smiles, their shabby, outlandish clothes. I’d walked only a few blocks when I felt inexplicably assaulted by loss. In the insistent noise of the streets, in the cackling voice of a DJ on the radio, in the glare of the summer sun, it was as if Lima were mocking me, ignoring me, thrusting her indifference at me. A heavyset woman sold red and blond wigs from a wooden cart. A tired clown rested on the curb, cigarette between his lips, and asked me for a light. I didn’t have the heart to interview him. The sun seemed to pass straight through me.”

That last sentence really nailed it for me. Later, he recalls when his family moved to Lima how he witnessed a gang of kids attack (with water balloons!) a lone clown sitting on a sidewalk. As part of his research for his story on the clowns of Lima, he even “goes undercover” and works with a couple real clowns to experience their day. He finds that he is able to observe the city in new ways hiding behind this disguise.

“Exactly zero (people) recognized me. I was forgetting myself too, patrolling the city, spying on my own life.”

A really good story and one of my favorites of Deal Me In 2015.

One of my favorite aspects of Deal Me In is discovering new favorite authors, and I know already that Alarcon (pictured below) will be one of them. I have one other story of his (“A Science for being Alone”) in my 2015 Deal Me In roster and am now eagerly looking forward to when that card turns up. What about you? Are you familiar with this author? Am I late to the game – as is often the case with me?