"Only a child would choose a warped mirror over one that showed him the truth."
Sixteen-year-old Webern Bell's spine is twisted, his body small. He is a dreamer and an artist, a clown as bent on expressing the intangible as he is amusing his audience. With all the spirit of youth, he wants to be not just a clown but a king of clowns. As Goldenland Past Dark opens, Chandler Klang Smith presents the tableau of Webern's ambitions, colorful and expressive, painting her landscape with precise strokes. Webern travels not with a fancy and flush big top, but with Dr. Show and his band of freaks and middling talent, performing in a dingy and rundown traveling show, soldiering on in poverty with the rest of them. Webern does his best with what he has, and suffers the jabs and teasing of his fellow performers with mostly good humor. He nurses his affections for the fierce-tongued Lizard Girl, Nepenthe, quietly worshiping her from the lowly position of clown and circus gofer. Clowning is Webern's escape, his passion and his most eloquent form of expression. When words fail, he articulates his deepest longings through pantomime, his hopes and dreams, his grief, love and deep sadness, to himself as much as his audience. He takes solace in the ritual of performance, no matter how small or rundown the ring, how small the crowd, escaping his awkwardness.
Dr. Show, a blowhard and perhaps a cheat, a former magician and bombastic ringmaster, plays a surrogate for Webern's disconnected father. Prone to bouts of Shakespeare quotes and empty gestures, he is a fading figure in the world, and unsurprisingly, he is the last to realize it. As his performers rebel and their pitiful little show hobbles on, he sees the truth far too late. Dr. Show's past catches up with him, the company suffers the consequences, and before long, kindhearted Webern must choose where his path lies.
Goldenland Past Dark's story is one of mystery and pain, the story of Webern's childhood and self-deception as much as his future. Just who is Webern's childhood friend, the mischievous and volatile Wags? The author does not shy from this profoundly sad yet never maudlin tale, choosing the warped mirror and the tragedy beneath the clown's façade to frame universal truths while revealing the depths of her characters' souls. Smith's colorful cast is diverse and deeply drawn, a showcase of the hearts within the freak show shells. Smith decorates her narrative with masks and images of perfection, a fun-house mirror's reflection of Webern's hunchback and sideshow acts made center, giving her readers something deeper to ponder while weaving descriptions as melancholic as they are unsettling and beautiful.
A piece about alienation and humanity, infused with compassion, Goldenland Past Dark is a redemptive narrative of love, loss, and inner demons. If certain elements prove predictable there is little to forgive, for what end could the sad clown have, but one layered with bittersweet? Highlighting the hopelessness of the clown's fate, Smith stops short of snuffing out Webern's buoyancy, and asks, what is life but the journey?
"It was hopeless, of course. So what? A clown's quests always were."
From the Clown King struggling to return to his two-dimensional throne, to the lachrymose image of a weather-beaten jester suspended high in the air, Webern's destiny is one of mournful inevitability, no less riveting or beautiful because of it. Readers intrigued by intelligent narratives and complex themes should not hesitate to seek out this haunting debut novel. I suspect we may anticipate great things from this author.