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Building the Big Top

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of four feature profiles by Meghan Owen about the winning authors of the Chicago Writers Association's first Book of the Year Awards, to be presented at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 14, at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

By Meghan Owen 

“The best parts of writing are those striking moments when characters like the Armless Wonder pop up in your imagination, when you can just see him in the dark, cigarette tip burning, and smell the smoke and hair oil.” – James Finn Garner 

James Finn GarnerIt is this imagery that fuels James Finn Garner’s hardboiled and hilarious Honk Honk, My Darling: A Rex Koko, Private Clown Mystery, the non-traditional fiction winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year Award.  However, the Chicago writer wasn’t always in the “funny” business.  When he moved to Chicago from Detroit, he originally wrote for real estate trade organizations.  Alas, the profession struck James as profoundly boring.  Over time, he began to integrate himself into the Windy City’s improv scene.  Garner performed in a wide selection of comedy venues such as JazzPoetry…TRUTH!, the Theatre of the Bizarre at the Elbo Room, and the Waveland Radio Playhouse, which gave birth to his clown detective, Rex Koko.  

Garner’s “clown noir” sat on the backburner for many years as he pursued other writing endeavors, including his New York Times Best Seller, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, and its offspring, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time and Politically Correct Holiday Stories.  Despite the successes of his previous traditionally published works, Garner self-published Honk Honk, My Darling, first as an e-book and recently in soft cover. 

The inspiration for the Rex Koko series is rooted in the unseen, underestimated and surprisingly debauched culture of the circus, which until the age of television was a dominant force on the entertainment scene.  According to Garner, the renowned Ringling Bros. Circus was a “Sunday School show,” exceptional in its reputation as an honest, family-friendly outfit.   Out of the real underbelly of show business, Garner said, came the phrase “to make your nut,” which in modern parlance means to turn a profit on an enterprise.  Historically, however, the phrase arose from the interaction between the local police and the traveling circuses.  Allegedly, the town authorities would remove the lug nuts from the wheels of the circus wagons in order to detain the troupe.  As Garner put it, they had three main motivations.  One, to make sure the circus folk didn’t steal anything too important.  Two, to check and see if anyone in town was pregnant.  And three, to get their payoff from the circus owner.  Clearly, the circus wasn’t exactly all fun and games. 

Garner drew forth his muse for Rex Koko from this dark side of entertainment.  “What would it be like if these people who naturally want to move around can’t anymore, because they are stuck on the fringe of normal society, like an ethnic group segregated in a ghetto?” he wondered.  That thought served as the springboard for the ensuing conflicts that would need to be investigated by no one other than Rex Koko himself. 

Honk Honk, My Darling  was, in fact, inspired by a real circus-related incident that took place in the 1940s, Garner said.  Vera Bruce, a Ringling trapeze artist, was attempting to divorce herself from her husband, Alfredo Codona. When they met with an attorney to divide their property, Codona shot his wife, and then turned the gun on himself.  Garner extracted the passion and tragedy from this event and used it to begin the journey of his painted private eye within the dark demographic of the Big Top. 

These fascinating real-life instances also helped form the language that colors Garner’s novel.  Using a strange and undulating blend of circus and detective slang, he creates a unique and raw voice.  The elements of language, history and storytelling all pull together to create a world so intricate that it expands beyond the book medium.  

In tandem with the book release, Garner launched a podcast reading of his novel, which pulls on his experience as a radio actor.  The podcast, which can be downloaded for free from his website, www.jamesfinngarner.com, and on iTunes, is constructed in the same fashion as the shows broadcast in the Golden Age of radio, complete with fictitious sponsors. 

Rex Koko has also expanded into the visual realm.  Garner has teamed with graphic artist Tony Akins and hopes to turn the series into a graphic novel. Sketches of Akins’ artwork are posted on the series website, www.rexkoko.com

Will there be a Rex Koko movie, too? “I’ve tried the movie treatment but it hasn’t gone anywhere yet,” Garner lamented. “Regardless, I can see this story going in a hundred different directions.” 

The story of Rex Koko won’t end with Honk Honk, My Darling, as Garner is already far into the second of what he sees as a continuing series.  Like one of his favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, best known for his popular and long-running Discworld series of comic fantasy novels, Garner hopes to parody a genre at first and then turn it into its own authentic series.  “I want to be part of the American literature jungle,” he said. “I’m not nearly as prolific as Pratchett, but I want to write something that hasn’t been done before, and I would love to do it for the rest of my life.”

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