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Stirring the Ashes : MASTERS OF ILLUSION, By Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Warner Books: $21.95; 224 pp.)

October 30, 1994|Jim Shepard | Jim Shepard is the author, most recently, of "The Kiss of the Wolf."

The Connecticut Circus Fire of 1944 is legendary in the history of that state, and with good reason. As a catastrophe it had the elements necessary for an unforgettable narrative: a sufficient magnitude of horror, an array of appalling attendant ironies and a tantalizing mystery at its heart.

On a hot July day of that year for reasons still debated a Barnum & Bailey's circus tent in Hartford caught fire, killing 169 people and injuring more than a thousand more, almost all women and children, since most of the men were overseas in the war. What was perhaps most horrifying about the story, as the details emerged, was how avoidable the disaster had been: Most of the victims had died, for example, because a steel animal chute parallel to the main entrance had not been disassembled; because it never occurred to people to simply go under the walls of the tent, instead of crowding toward the exit; and because, as makeshift waterproofing (at a time when the war effort had gobbled up all the waterproof canvas), the regular canvas had been painted with a solution of paraffin and gasoline. The result was a fire that consumed the biggest circus tent in the world (three city blocks long) in less than six minutes.

That historical fire is the central organizing event of Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's new novel, "Masters of Illusion." Smith, the author of three previous novels (including "The Book of Phoebe") here presents us with another story of investigation, in which the attempt to get at the truth of what happened that day is paralleled, first metaphorically and then literally, by the attempt to get to the bottom of a particular family's dysfunction.

The protagonist of "Masters of Illusion" is Margie Potter, the youngest child to survive the fire, who 18 years later marries Charlie O'Neill, a Hartford fireman obsessed with the disaster since his childhood. Charlie believes, almost alone, that the fire was deliberately set, and Margie becomes--half helpmate, half bystander--a party to his obsession with finding out the truth. As Charlie proceeds with his 25-year search, Margie, prodded by her annoyingly wise daughter Martha, comes to understand that she's proceeding with her own investigation into the sources of another disaster: the gradual collapse of her relationship with her husband. As the novel trundles along pretending to be principally about the circus fire, we come to understand that it's really more about a stifling marriage, the covert suffocating power of familial relationships, and the ways in which we ourselves can become, in terms of what we tell ourselves about the inner workings of our families, masters of illusion: self-hypnotists who repress one fact and invent another as a means of keeping our quotidian lives on an even keel.

The author portrays the circus fire as an event so traumatic it becomes for everyone connected with it an immense generator of repressive energies, and therefore of secrets. It's a psyche-wrecker of massive proportions, and Charlie, like a lunch-pail Freudian analyst, interviews survivor after survivor and allows them to unlock dark secrets that have been compelling their behavior in unsuspected ways all these years.

Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" replayed again and again, the novel is then in the position of continually rehashing the events of the fire, an aesthetic problem it handles with dexterity, turning some details into terrible refrains and slowly releasing others as additional revelations, so that we see various aspects of the horror: the terrible panic; the pieces of burning canvas, falling everywhere as the paraffin and gasoline mixture created what was essentially napalm; the unspeakable smell; the band playing Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" as both a coded alarm and an attempt to control panic. And some of the novel's images have the resiliency in memory of Holocaust photos: choking mothers, trapped by the steel chute, holding their children up to be saved; a mother and son at the bottom of the crush of bodies, afterward found alive but fused together by their burned flesh.

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