Updated: Nov 5, 2020
by Gary Robinson
‘The Sword Swallower and a Chico Kid’ is a book in three parts; the first is the story of Duke Reynolds, who ran away to join the circus aged 15 in the early 1950s, this is written in third person. Among other circus roles, he is primarily a sword swallower and this part of the book follows him and his escapades both with and without the circus up until the early 1990s. He is also an alcoholic and a methamphetamine addict. He manages to kick the alcohol as we leave his story but remains acquainted with meth.
The second part of the story is concerned with Gary Robinson (yes, same name as the Author) and this account is relayed in first person. Gary’s life has unravelled from a fairly early age and this section of the book lurches from his involvement in one drunken, drug-fuelled disastrous escapade to another before stumbling into Duke Reynolds plying his sideshow act in a Tavern. The third and final part of the novel tells the story of their brief but intense friendship at the end of Duke’s life and Gary’s meeting of his future wife, Angel.
There is a awful lot right with this novel, yet, an awful lot wrong. The first part is the stronger without question. The story of Duke is incredibly interesting, real, thought-provoking and Robinson writes with a clear and blistering passion. This passion, however, may well have caused the issues that arise. First, throughout the novel, there are some glaring spelling errors which could possibly be typos, clunky grammar – the tenses jump on occasion and there are continuity concerns with the narrative. The Author has also left some editing notes in the text that I read. Secondly, you feel Robinson writing with such a surge to tell this tale that some areas which he is not so keen on are weak and frankly unbelievable. Although Duke has had plenty of time in prison to educate himself, the jump to a naturally gifted, talented and fully learned band member who can turn his hand to playing any tune is a leap which does not have much explaining either other a brief few lines than he studied harmony and theory via the Julliard School of Music whilst in prison. Although this last couple of chapters of Duke’s story are entertaining, they belong in another narrative which provides more backstory to make it believable. But, there are chapters in this section that are brilliant; captivating and full of pathos.
The next section, a Chico Kid, is the weaker despite flashes of brilliance. The Author does advise at the beginning that some of the writing is drawn from personal experience, but if he gives this character the exact moniker as himself – is it faithful memoir or self-indulgence? If this is not entirely based upon his life then why given the protagonist the same name? Again, the hurry to tell the tale, get the words on the page with no rigorous editing leads to some tenuous narrative connections and cliché.
It is very easy to write that people are ingesting large amounts of narcotics, drinking themselves into oblivion and the carnage that ensues from that but not so easy to write why they are doing it. In both sections of the novel, there is no backstory to either Duke or Gary’s self-destruction – we know next to nothing of their parents (brief mention of Duke’s mother dying when he was on the road – what would that effect be? Was he close to her?) siblings, if any or life before we meet them. It makes Gary especially one-dimensional and the drinking gets a bit tedious with no obvious reason why. What is good and works well is the character of Duke seen through Gary’s eyes – it provides much needed answers.
The triumvirate passage of the novel veers into existentialism and drug-addled cod-philosophy. By this stage, I was finding the character of Gary irritating and could have happily dispensed with his antics and just heard more about Duke.
There is also a very short Prologue, where we briefly meet Gary as a Grandfather. I don’t know that it really added anything;, it was some time through the novel that I even recalled it. It may have been better worked in at the end.
From an English reader’s point of view, a few footnotes would have helped. Understandably, I know next to nothing about American College Fraternities, so a note on some of the terms would have helped. I also spent the early part of the novel inwardly cursing every time I read ‘esophagus’, thinking the Author had left off the ‘o’. Only to finally research this and discover that in American English, the oesophagus loses the ‘o’. As this is a fairly important word in the tale of a sword swallower, a quick note in the text would be advisable.
However, large sections of this novel will stay with me for a long while. I don’t think I have read anything quite like it and I would recommend it. Despite its technical flaws, which is why I cannot give higher than three stars, there is much to enjoy here. The overall quality of the story and zeal with which is has been written is certainly worth a reader’s engagement.