Clown Girl by Monica Drake

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Clown Girl: A Novel

Author: Monica Drake

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially purchased this thinking it would be a good idea for my other site devoted to odd books. But while this book has an unusual heroine living in an unusual subculture, it skirts the criteria I use to determine an odd book.

Availability: Published in 2006 by Hawthorne Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Nita is a clown. She lives in Baloneytown, waiting for her boyfriend, Rex, to return to her. She is a tenant in a house with a pot-selling burnout and his hostile and clever girlfriend, living in a tiny room with her beloved dog and her clown accoutrements. Nita loses items precious to her and longs to get them back, and dreams of a time when she can combine high art, literature and the profession of being a clown. Also, she meets a policeman who is clearly smitten with her though he has no idea what she looks like under her makeup because she lives her life completely as a clown. In Nita’s tale, Drake manages to tell a very familiar story but employs such unusual elements that one does not wholly realize that Nita could just as easily been named Bridget Jones or might easily have come from Marian Keyes’ Shopaholic series. Nita is feckless, self-absorbed, head in the clouds, in love with a cretin and her job is often in jeopardy. She has a bitchy nemesis, there is a strong, kind man waiting for her in the wings, and it takes her entirely too long to pull herself together, though she manages it after tumbling into one unlikely situation after another.

Drake spins a marvelous tale but the real reason I think I loved this book so much is not only that Nita speaks to me in an almost eerie way, but also because Drake inverts the traditional chick-lit story by stating outright what it is that makes these clumsy, clueless, grandiose, insecure women appealing. She makes it clear from the very title what Nita is. She’s a clown. No mincing words. Nita is a clown and Drake shows how hard it is not to be a clown when hiding behind makeup, clothes, images and pie-in-the-sky ideas is all one has ever known. I’m a clown, though less clownish (I hope) as I get older but if you began as a clown, bumbling your way through life, you will find much to like about Nita and her slapstick life. In Nita, using the raucous background of clowns and her inversion of the modern chick-lit novel, Drake creates a character who tells a story we are familiar with but have not wholly heard before.

Though this book is a riff on familiar plots, I don’t want to give an outline of the book because the fantastic disaster as Nita’s life unspools is one of the reasons I think you should read this book. But I will hit on some plot points as I share some of Drake’s writing and parts of the book that truly resonated with me. The novel begins with Nita collapsing, suffering from the effects of a terrible loss – a miscarriage. She is working as a clown at an outdoor event and the heat and likely the effects of her recent miscarriage cause her to pass out. She is taken to the hospital and the thoughts in her head as she navigates being in a frightening place all alone spoke to me and I immediately felt a kinship with Nita. I have no idea if her paranoia would translate to people who have have had excellent experiences with doctors and nurses, but for me, I could have written Nita’s thoughts (and it wasn’t lost on me as I read many of Nita’s thoughts that often the first letter of my own name is seldom pronounced by my fellow Texans, rendering me a de facto “Nita”).

Don’t tell doctors your dreams, ever. Don’t tell them your menstrual cycle. Don’t say you felt anything in your head, or that you might’ve known. If they ask about street drugs, which they will, say no, no matter what. If you say, I feel anxious all the time, you’ll get Valium. Otherwise you’ll get what they call “mood equalizers,” daily doses of who knows what, a gambler’s crapshoot in tinctures of chemicals.

As a clown on the street, I had to keep my wits. I couldn’t take their chemicals.

Don’t tell doctors anything.

This is a cluebat of sorts. Nita suffered a miscarriage before this trip to the ER, but it is also clear she had some frightening experiences with doctors trying to help her correct her brain, a brain that seems very common to me but might seem to others like the kind of skull space that needs tinctures of chemicals. I also relate to this fear of authority’s power more than I care to admit. Also, in this chick-lit inversion, it is refreshing that Nita does not want the drugs that would have just led to another humiliating escapade for a traditional heroine.

Nita takes being a clown very seriously but through the descriptions of the tools Nita uses in her craft, as well as the way Drake describes Nita’s thoughts about the artistic routines Nita wants to perform, we see the utter ridiculousness of Nita’s life. We don’t need Nita sliding down a fireman’s pole showing her panties or putting eyeshadow on in the place of blusher, all visually very clownish actions, to show Nita’s true inner clown. Take this passage about Nita’s approach to balloon animals, bearing in mind that later in the book she wonders about creating The Last Supper in balloon form and feels there is an important message inherent in such an act.

Swollen Sacred Hearts, shrunken wise men, and bloated angels bobbed at my feet, the fruits of my labor. On the shopworn dedication page of Balloon Tying for Christ it said “With appreciation and gratitude for my wife and six lovely children who have borne with me through twelve long years of deprivations while trying to complete this work.” Such martyrs! Balloon Tying for Christ was maybe all of seventeen pages long, with one blank page at the end. The tricks inside, by corporate accounting, were worth hundreds of dollars, Matey, Crack and me, that’s what we earned when high-end work came in. But work didn’t always come. We had to promote and deliver. That book was my cash cow.

It’s hard to think of anything more ridiculous than a 17 page book about making balloon figures for Jesus and how such a book could become the bread and butter to any person, but Drake shows us. She shows us clearly the absolutely insane pieces that make up the whole of Nita.

Nita above may demonstrate how she understands her profession is one of money but she longs to be an artist, a clown interpreting great art and literature (her final blowup with her despicable boyfriend Rex concerns him pirating her Kafka interpretation as told via a clown), but she resents the fact that she is a comedic act or worse, that she should be sexually appealing in her clowning. When one of two female clowns she occasionally works with spells it out for her, it’s not clear that it really sinks in to Nita. Nita simply wants to be a clown artiste and doesn’t like to think of how what she really does applies to what she really wants to do.

“Pssst,” Matey said, in a stage whisper and knocked a hand against her head. “Here’s a clue: Women wear makeup, right? But a man in face paint, people see aahh-rt. You and me, we top out at birthday gigs, and that hurts more than anything I’m doing now. That’s the meat o’ the matter.” She tipped her Chaplin hat. Was it true? Was there a latex ceiling, made-up makeup finish line?

Despite being a clown, and supporting herself, after a fashion, being a clown for parties and even engaging in sexier acts for corporate parties, Nita bitterly resents the way that money destroys what she considers beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci said water was the most destructive force on the planet. Water corrodes metal and eats through rock. But da Vinci forgot about the corrosive power of cash; when money came into a neighborhood, the buildings toppled. Even people disappeared.

Like any stereotypical artiste type, Nita wants purity. She wants pure love, pure work, pure happiness. Just like her grandiose idea of herself interpreting art as a clown, her ideas about what life can really be are just as grandiose and unhappy about settling for anything less. She says:

In a world of clown whores and virgins, I’d cling to the integrity of art.

That doesn’t happen, but even as she is descending into the world of clown prostitution, Nita still has lofty and near-risible goals.

Traditionally, there’s been no delicacy to balloon art. That’s where I’d revolutionize things. Chiaroscuro, sfumato: I’d find a way to translate da Vinco’s painterly tricks into rubber and air.

Maybe I’d pioneer a line of designer balloon colors in da Vinci’s palette. Why stop there? I could have a van Gogh line, a Gauguin line, Toulouse-Lautrec and Tintoretto.

Nita’s delusions carry her to strange places, to strange actions, to stranger results. She wants to be more than a juggling clown at a kid’s party. She wants to be a performance artist, a portrayer of truth. But she is a clown and she proves it over and over again, that her perspective of being a clown will never match up to her dreams of artistic relevance. And like the heroines in chick-lit, she decides to alter her body but instead of dieting or buying clothes she cannot afford, Nita decides to don a sand-filled fat suit to turn herself into a face-painted voluptuary. And what fine slapstick would be complete if she did not, in fact, juggle fire in such a get-up?

I’d be a sassy, busty clown girl juggling fire. Of course–why not? I’d play to crowds high and low. I’d find the fine line between Crack’s clown whore and my own comic interpretation, work both sides and move easily from the comedy of burlesque to striptease, slapstick to sexy. I’d graduate from Clown Girl to Clown Woman.

Then we go from a padded body suit to the sublimely ridiculous.

I’d do a new silent, sexy version of Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up, finds he’s metamorphosed into a woman with an hourglass figure–where every second counts!–and his world’s on fire. I’d do a busty Beef-Brisket Dance, on fire. Two Clowns in a Shower on fire. And Who’s Hogging the Water? –that’d mixed genre, soft porn plus fire. Even an ordinary bodacious bod and the pins on fire would be a new show altogether.

But Nita is still deluded. She can’t make it from being a clown girl to a clown woman as long as she is a clown. As long as she clings to her outrageous ideas, she will never be able to find any real truth. Given what a fabulous disaster she is, it ends about how you sensed it would as soon as you read the word “fire.” Nita sets herself and the yard on fire. And oh yeah, she’s fire juggling in the middle of the night. This is also a very good example of the both extreme and subtle humor Drake wields, making Nita a borderline caricature but never stepping completely into a place where the reader cannot respond to Nita’s plight.

“Crapola! Crapola!” I ran in a circle and threw myself down. I rolled on the grass where the grass wasn’t on fire, but the Pendulous Breasts resisted my momentum, and everywhere I rolled sparks flew. The Pendulous Breasts duck-quacked and chirped a cacophony of party sounds. I was guilty and now I was on fire. Who would’ve known hell was so efficient. A few mistakes and hell came to me faster than room service.

Because she is burned and experiencing heart problems, Nita returns to the hospital, where she again tells a terrible tale from her past. Without telling the reader the reasons for Nita’s paranoia, Drake makes it all too clear what happens to some girls who enter the maw of a hospital when they are alone, weird and full of self-delusion.

Here’s what I know now: never let a misunderstanding go unclarified in a hospital, same as in a school, jail, or prison. Never carry a diary with you, not even a day planner if you write notes in it. Don’t say, “Yes, that’s mine,” to any old scrap of nothing, to what might have been interesting in the free world.

The hospital, it’s a gateway, The path to incarceration.

Your best bet is don’t even write anything down. Ever. Most of all, don’t go near the hospital unless your problem is obvious as a bullet or a broken leg, and don’t go more than once. Otherwise you’ll learn about a two-doctor hold. Doctor Two-Hold, a seventy-two-hour detainment–and seventy-two hours can be longer if it’s late at night or over a weekend.

A deus ex machina in the typical chick-lit form of a man saves Nita from the probable 72-hour psych lock down that awaits her after coming into the ER burned, wearing an exploding fat suit and in full clown regalia.

…Jerrod had seen me inside and out, burned and in the psych ward. And still here he was, beside me. But the blood and the burns were all circumstantial, a string of bad luck, the anomaly. I didn’t want to think that was me–a wreck, a mess, a mortal.

But she is a wreck and a mess. You want to despair of Nita but you can’t, not quite. She periodically shows glimmers of insight that peek out when she is daydreaming about her despicable boyfriend and making an art show out of balloons tied to resemble Renaissance paintings. This scene, for example: Nita has lost her rubber chicken, whom she calls “Plucky” and put up reward posters all over her low-income and crime-infested neighborhood, resulting in dozens of people coming by with various rubber chickens trying to collect the reward.

“Maybe your Plucky jus’ fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe she was looking for love and thought she’d found it…but you can’t trust nobody round here, that’s what Plucky knows now. Uh huh.” The woman’s eyes were flat and dull. She’s quit looking at me. “Plucky maybe learned a few things, and you say, ‘No way, no second chances,’ and jus’ like that, man, turn her ass back out on the street.”

I said, “Who are we talking about here?”

And who were they talking about? The worn down woman at the door or Nita herself? It’s hard to tell here, but later revelations show Nita is far more in tune with herself than even she would like to admit.

I was good at pool. Physics, I understood. I knew all about vectors. That was my original goal in clowning–to create the illusion of defying physics with muscular comedy. I wanted to be able to stand when it looked like I should fall, to spring up when gravity would pull down, and to balance at impossible angles. I wanted to win, or at least stay on my feet, when it looked like I was losing.

Losing is a thing Nita understands so it stands to reason she wants to be able to look good doing it. But she also knows that she is not ever going to be able to make it in a more rarefied world.

One lone lobster beat a claw against the glass wall of a small tank. The lobster’s narrow, empty world was perched over a frozen sea; blue Styrofoam tray after tray of Dungeness crab, leggy purple squid, and bundled smelt rested on chopped ice below. Tick, tick. The lobster knocked, as though to flag down help. Across the aisle what had once been a herd of grass-fed cattle now lay silent in bloody pools of iced New York strip steak, flank steak, ribs, tongues, and burger. Edible flowers bloomed on a small green stand, a miniature field ready for harvest. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap. A lobster S O S. Get me out of this dead heaven. I knew the feeling.

Yeah, and this inversion of the chick-lit rang the truest to me because unlike her counterparts, Nita can’t just pick the right guy, clean herself up, lose a few pounds, get her credit card debt under control and she’ll suddenly find herself living the good life when the author rewards her feminine will to change with the perfect rich man to pave her way. Nita would feel even more like a clown in a monied world of privilege.

My heart, ready to burst, spoke in the fast Morse code of biology: you’ll die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy... I had seconds to live. My heart was too big for my chest, my head hummed. I couldn’t move fast enough, had to get out of there.

As Nita shows how her damaged heart is telling her what to do, I could not help but think of Sylvia Plath’s Esther, whose heart beat, “I am, I am.” Nita’s heart tells her she has two options, both horrible, and given the hints of diagnosed craziness in her past, this passage was terrible because despite the loony ideas Nita had concerning her work and her art, at the core of her, the heart, so to speak, in times of grave stress her only options seemed to be to go crazy or die.

I like to think Nita’s heart went to such dark places not because she was indeed depressed (though she is definitely desperate) but rather because she knew on a very basic level that her dreams of clown artistry were hogwash, an attempt to cloak herself in dreams so she would not have to look at the real problems in her life. Nita has no family, she lost her baby, and she has no allies.

Emancipated minor? I’d been one for years–emancipated but no longer a minor, and I was ready to have a team, a side, a family. Somebody to back me up. A person shouldn’t be emancipated so long.

Sadly, the person she pins her hopes on, Rex, is not worth her care, even as a clown girl. Here’s a quote from Rex:

Rex laughed then, a mean, sharp snort. “Impossible? You want to talk impossible? This is all bullshit, babe. Youw ant to think you’re not a hooker, just a clown on a private date. Think you’re an artist, working a new car lot? I’ll tell you something–that’s not art. It’s just a story you’re making up. Maybe the same story you’d tell our baby, if we still had a baby. Mommy’s not a hooker, she’s a corporate party girl. No wonder the kid bailed. Christ, maybe the thing’s lucky you dumped it.”

As horrible as this was, as horrible as him rubbing her face in her miscarriage could ever be, he has a point. Nita’s no artist. She tells herself stories to get herself through and had created a fantasy about being a family with Rex as she had about her work. It hits her hard.

A deus ex machina reunited Nita with her rubber chicken and her lost dog, and once she has the dog back, she has to do something to save her dog’s life. Her roommates like to feed the dog pot and to keep the dog from becoming deathly ill, she needs peroxide to induce vomiting. However, she shows up at the convenience store wearing the ragged remains of the fat suit, her clown makeup smeared, and she cannot get anyone to take her seriously. Because she is a clown, she cannot impart upon anyone that she is in the middle of an emergency and she finally begins to see how she is hindering herself by imbuing her odd ideas with a patina artistic endeavor.

There was my face in the aluminum rim of the hot-foods incubator, around jo-jos and chicken, I was reflected in the glass of the Coke cooler and the grease-smeared deli case, all powdery makeup, black liner and big red lips, the face of a clown hooker right out of an old-time jail-time act. My one Caboosey boob hung free.
The only show was my life and it was a bomb. The only routine was the daily one. I’d been in clown costume so long, I wasn’t an artist. I was a freak.

She takes a good look at herself, where she lives and the people she knows and she realizes it’s time to change.

They, my friends, were hucksters, drug dealers, and bullies. But in that world of defeatism, I was the jester, the fall guy, the rubber chicken. I was the one who put on face paint and shades, limping in one big shoe.

And if this was a regular chick-lit novel, there would be another deus ex machina that would help Nita wipe off the clown makeup, would help her find two regular shoes so she could walk tall and proud, a job would magically fall into her lap and the new man who was lurking at her side unnoticed would sweep her off her feet and Nita would realize she could stand on her own two feet again, though she wouldn’t have to since the new guy would be rich and ready to marry her. That doesn’t happen in this chick-lit inversion but the ending is satisfying in its own way.

This book surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I think it managed to walk down the path of mainstream chick-lit novels to satisfy my occasional need for glurge, but it also did truly invert the real goal of such novels and their well-worn paths by giving us a heroine whose hidden past remained hidden, whose life really was ridiculous, whose world resembled places I am familiar with and whose transformation showed herself she could not remain a clown and achieve any of the goals she wanted in her life as a person. I highly recommend this book and hope Drake is writing new novel. I very much would like to see what she says next.