Thy Magic Kingdom Come
We interrupt your regularly scheduled banned book programming to bring you this special non-banned-book review. Some of you may remember fellow Hampshire alum Pam Jones from my post back in October of 2012. Her book, formerly self-published as Every Good Boy Deserves a Favor under the name Pam Hopkins, has since been picked up by Black Hill Press.
The new Black Hill edition, now titled The Biggest Little Bird, was published December 2013. I sat down with it last week and was swept up in a whirlwind of nostalgically seedy surrealism with a dash of the bizarre and a scoop of astute glimpses into the nature of ambition, guilt, and the so-called-innocence of childhood. Pam Jones was kind enough to let me interview her about the book, so be sure to check that out after.
The Biggest Little Bird is a magical realism novella set in the early 60s, as a new theme park, built upon a veritable Space Mountain of lies, is unveiled to an eager public. The book is shorter than the average novel, but the length alone is not what makes this a quick read.
Between the fantastic, near bacchanalic setting and Jones’s unique voice and descriptive language, the story itself gives the reader the experience of being lost at an amusement park. Sometimes the metaphors and frenzy of activity can seem overwhelming and you’re not entirely certain what’s going on, but there is still a great deal to see, from the rides to the colorful characters to the hints of something far more sinister beneath the veneer, be it the actual park or the men behind it. Sometimes Jones paints a scene so clear and tangible, that it hangs before the reader like a snow globe, a visceral moment or a forgotten childhood memory, preserved forever, though the time it evokes has long since passed.
It’s no surprise photographs feature so prominently in the book, as the pages themselves feel like old Polaroids of a time and people at once familiar and full of secrets we never noticed. Unfortunately, some typos distract here and there, but Jones weaves a spell over her readers for the first half of the book (not unlike that cast over the park goers themselves) and then grabs them by the jugular for the raw, biting, and downright anxiety-inducing conclusion (much like a sudden plunge or twist on a theme park ride). Try not to read the second half in one sitting. I dare you.
However, the real strength of the book is the characters. Dorothea is by far my favorite, but there are so many great, quirky, often reprehensible characters, from mousey Freddy to the bulimic former Nazi Youth trying to make it big to the Holocaust survivor hoarding snack cakes at the park to the reluctant mothers of an upwardly mobile middle class to Jonquil the pistachio heiress to the flame-haired little person who is secretly Czech royalty to the park itself (a character in its own right, even without its mythic persona and marketed backstory).
Before the climax kicks in, it’s a bit like people-watching at Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. If that sounds great to you, this is your book. If your spinning cup of tea leans a little more toward action, fear not, the last half is where shit gets real (to borrow a phrase from one of my Hampshire writing workshop classes). I can’t talk about the end anywhere near as much as I’d like to, as this is one review where I can’t have spoilers, but this book has a lot to say and will leave you thinking. Yet, despite all of the unsettling elements and dark secrets, there is a surprisingly sweet twist in store for a few of the characters.
I was intrigued by the somewhat ambivalent attitude towards both childhood and religion in the book. It seemed to me that Ickack Pleasure Gardens is an attempt to recapture or imitate both, one which inevitably falls short (though there is certainly a reckoning for some). I’ll admit, I’m not sure I entirely got all of the religious symbolism, but it did imbue the text (and the looming beast of the park, with its growling rides and hungry tourists) with a sense of dread and mythos. In the end, Jones has succeeded where her characters have not, creating a park and a story around it that will thrill, inspire wonder, and stick in the memory of all those who have experienced it.
This story is in some ways the story of America itself in the 60s. Everyone is reinventing themself, changing their name, heading out west to make it big, scheming, dreaming, reading sensationalized crime stories (in a time before it was a nightly news or morning milk carton reality), and trying to find their way in a new and uncertain world where not everything is as advertised. If memorable characters, creative descriptions, and a scathingly upbeat look at the truth behind the fantasy and the horror sounds like an afternoon well spent to you, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Also, I have had this song stuck in my head all week, as I think it perfectly captures the mix of 60s Americana, commercialism, (pseudo?) religion, and the search for a promised land or American Dream via a theme park in The Biggest Little Bird.
The Biggest Little Bird is available on Amazon.com. Black Hill Press is working on making it available in indie bookstores. You can also read the first chapter for free here. For more on Pam Jones, check out her author portfolio on the Black Hill Press website, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter at @PanimalJones.