Like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, the fat man/thin man comedy duo of Carter and Sharp featured in Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again will do anything to earn the adoration of strangers sitting in darkness.

Mose Sharp narrates the story, starting with his Iowa childhood when a mentoring older sister infects him with the vaudeville bug, while his father grooms him to take over the family menswear store. When tragic consequences force Mose to choose between his father's hopes and a life in show business, he knows that his decision to run away might appear hard-hearted. But, as Mose explains, "People who manage to turn things down, jobs and marriage and children, love and steady meals, have hearts soft as velvet, hearts . . . never meant for work."

McCracken traces Sharp's journey to stardom, including his travels as a mediocre song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit, and his work as a "disappointment act," filling in for billed performers too drunk, sick or depressed to go on stage. But soon Rocky Carter spots Mose backstage and offers him a job as his straight man. They're a modest hit, and eventually, after some radio features, they move out to Hollywood to make films.

Together, they star in low budget, quickly made, formulaic films, and they become rich. But such success, of course, takes a toll on Carter and Sharp's personal lives, including the increasingly fragile relationship and dependency they share. McCracken, who was nominated for the National Book Award for her first novel, A Giant's House, well knows that pain lies at the core of every successful joke. As this concept is central to Carter and Sharp's success, it is also integral to the atmosphere created in the novel. Her observations consistently avoid sentimentality, as when Mose feels angry about his father telling Rocky a family story that Mose never heard himself. Near the end of his life, Mose comes to understand his father's actions: "Your own children and their questions! They interrupt you. Their eyes bulge when a relative in a story behaves in a way they can't imagine (and they can't imagine much). They interrupt again, though every question they ask, every single one, is the same: How exactly has this story shaped my life?" Such passages make familiar territory lifelong self-absorption a strange, new discovery.

Only the novel's conclusion feels slightly unsatisfying, in that some questions never even get asked (let alone answered). Overall, though, tagging along with straight man Mose Sharp, from the time of vaudeville through the age of television, is flat-out fun a heartbreaking and exhilarating ride.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.


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