After talking about Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! with some of my friends, the lovely Joolie suggested that I read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989). And she even had a copy to loan to me, so how could I resist?
Geek Love is the story of the Binewski family's traveling carnival. When Al Binewski inherits the carnival from his father, he notices that the troupe is becoming less and less popular. In an effort to drum up some business, he and his wife Crystal Lil decide to breed their own freak show by dosing the pregnant Lil up with drugs, radiation, and anything else they can think of. Their first experiment yields Art the Aqua Boy, born with no arms and legs, just little flippers coming out of his torso. The next successful experiment gives us Ely and Iphy, the Siamese twins. Third out of the hatch is our narrator, Oly, an albino hunchback dwarf (who was always pitied by the rest of the family since she really wasn't that unique), and finally Chick, the youngest son who looked perfectly normal but had a hidden psychic talent.
The book is split between present-day Portland where Oly works in the radio industry and her past youth and young adulthood working with her family in the carnival. In Portland Oly owns a run down apartment building and has her drug-addled and senile mother, Lil, installed in the first floor as the building manager, and her daughter, Miranda in an upstairs apartment. The thing is, Lil is too out of it to know who Oly is, and Miranda was given up for adoption when she was one year old and doesn't know anything about her family. Oly acts as a secret guardian of the stories of her family's past and the trajectory of her daughter's future (and the future of the subdued freakishness that connects the otherwise normal-looking Miranda to her family).
As she prepares for the climax that will set Miranda on the right path, Oly goes through the papers and artifacts from her past and writes out the history of the Binewski family for her daughter. In addition to regular family dramas and coming-of-age heartaches, the Binewski's have to deal with a son whose sideshow act turns into a amputational cult, pregnant Siamese twins, a child whose freak-gift removes all boundaries of physics, an emasculated father, and a mother with a very tenuous grasp on reality. Whew. No wonder things don't work out very well...
I liked this book a lot -- particularly the present-day parts. The carnival family was great, but the whole thing lost a little momentum about three quarters of the way through. And even though his gift is pretty important to the plot, I spent a lot of time wishing that Chick had a more realistic freakishness to him, and not a deus ex machina talent that quickly moved the plot from the weirdly possible to the unbelievable.