Dickens may have found its waters "thundering," and Henry James might have seen it as "a drama of thrilling interest," but Oscar Wilde was probably closer to the truth when he described Niagara Falls as "a vast unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks."
Well, even if Wilde didn't understand our indigenous wonders, there is something in the American soul that resonates to mind-numbing scale--the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mall of the Americas. Of course, the fact that we often undercut that scale with knickknack shops and snack bars is also part of the American psyche. Wilde just never understood our giant capacity for wonder combined with our giant capacity for postcards.
This same combination of awe and aw-shucks commerce lies at the heart of Richard Watson's latest novel. "Niagara" tells the story of two genuinely fascinating real-life characters: Jean Francois Gravelet, the Frenchman who became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope; and Anna Edson Taylor, the Midwestern schoolteacher who became the first person to go over the Falls (deliberately) in a barrel--and live.
Opening with Gravelet's boyhood recollections of running away to join an itinerant circus in Provence, the first half of the novel chronicles his travels, his chance encounter with Konrad the Great (then, the world's greatest tightrope walker), his eventual apprenticeship on the wire, and his ultimate decision to tackle the Falls.
Gravelet is a manic extrovert given to hilarious, shoulder-shrugging Gallic exaggeration. Of course, it takes a certain audacity to walk on a rope less than two inches in diameter at a height where a single misstep will kill you. It also requires an extraordinary attention to detail. It is this combination of bravado, coupled with his almost ethereal appreciation of the most transitory of winds, vibrations and emotions, that makes Gravelet such an ideal guide to the bizarre, adrenalized world of the wire. Indeed, many of the most elegant passages in this often-elegant narrative deal with the mechanics as well as the expression of walking the wire, from the art of damping the rope's fluctuations (by introducing subtle counter-waves), to the art of falling (cultivating the patience to wait for the wire to come within the grasp of a single hand).
Of course, it is not subtlety that drives Gravelet to America in 1901, but ambition. And Gravelet is no fool. He knows exactly what the crowds want to see, and he also knows exactly what the crowds are willing to admit they want to see. A triumph of human skill, or a mesmerizing catastrophe--which would satisfy the mobs more? Which, in the end, will make them feel better?
Equally fascinating--in an utterly different way--is the story of Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel, indeed, the first person to go over the Falls deliberately and live. (Another soul had accidentally tumbled into the Falls and survived, but was subsequently killed when he attempted the feat intentionally.) In contrast to Gravelet's tale, Edson's is singularly poignant. Taylor, widowed, her children grown and gone, suddenly finds herself answering a newspaper advertisement and, almost inexplicably, moving to Niagara in order to go over the Falls in a barrel. This is a story of mid-life reinvention through sheer (perhaps foolish) force of will, and it becomes the more haunting because it is the story of an ordinary person in a bizarre situation. If there is a triumph in Edson Taylor's surviving the Falls, it is a peculiar one based on fate and luck, not skill.
If there is anything disappointing in this novel, however, it is that Edson's story, which makes up the second half of the book, is not as compellingly told as Gravelet's. This is not necessarily Watson's fault; the same unflappable ordinariness that makes Edson Taylor such a memorable character, also renders her a somewhat less-than-satisfying narrator. According to Edson Taylor's story, leaving Nebraska and going over the Falls just seems to happen; a bit like falling down the stairs. But the fact remains, Edson Taylor didn't fall down the stairs--she threw herself--and therein lies the real mystery behind her character which, sadly, she can express only obliquely.