Niagara Falls All Over Again
Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, NIAGARA FALLS ALL OVER AGAIN,
stars Mike Sharp, straight man of the comedy duo Carter and Sharp
--- vaudevillians, movie stars, radio and television personalities,
best friends. As Sharp recounts a lifetime of experiences, nearly
all of which are refracted through the prism of his relationship
with fat funny man Rocky Carter, he takes the reader through the
history of comedic entertainment in the 20th century. But Sharp's
story is essentially about tragedy, not comedy. Although Carter and
Sharp are enormously successful, Sharp's reminiscences reveal how a
lifetime of disappointments, large and small, can alienate a person
from those he most loves. McCracken has given her narrator a
memorable voice, equal parts lighthearted and melancholy, which he
employs to explore the rise and fall of Carter and Sharp, both as a
team and as individuals.
Mike Sharp, nee Mose Sharp --- a Jewish kid growing up with six
sisters in Valley Junction, Iowa, in the early part of the 20th
century --- didn't originally have a voice at all. In fact, the
first version of what would become NIAGARA FALLS ALL OVER AGAIN was
told in the third person and didn't involve a comedy team. That all
changed, McCracken said, when she "got really interested in one
A comment made by a relative, while McCracken was looking through
old family photographs, recreated that character and, ultimately,
the book itself.
"I actually have a Great Uncle Mose," McCracken said, "and I was
looking at old photographs of him when one of my relatives said,
'Poor Uncle Mose. If he'd been born into a different family, he'd
have gone into vaudeville and been a comedian.'"
Originally, McCracken thought she had just been given an idea for
the book to follow the one she was working on, but eventually she
mined the 200 pages she had already written for material she could
use in her novel about a straight man and his partner.
"If you'd asked me a week before I made the decision, I'd have said
there was no way, that it was too hard (to rewrite the book),"
McCracken said. "But at the time I made the decision it seemed
effortless and the solution to the book, so I tried to write as
quickly as humanly possible."
Along the way, she spent hours watching and listening to comedy
teams like Abbott and Costello to get a feel for the material she
would eventually write for Carter and Sharp.
"It was sort of great," she said of her research. "It was one of
the things that got me energized about the book."
That's not to say, however, that many of Carter and Sharp's
"famous" routines made it into the finished novel.
"There used to be a lot more comedy routines in the book,"
McCracken explained. "People who read the drafts told me they
weren't very funny, and I would say, 'Yeah, but that's sort of the
point,' and they would reply, 'Well, you displayed that
NIAGARA FALLS ALL OVER AGAIN is more concerned with relationships
than with script transcription. It is in some ways reminiscent of
McCracken's acclaimed first novel, 1996's THE GIANT'S HOUSE. As
McCracken put it, both novels are "mismatched love stories, as are
several of the stories in my short story collection (1993's HERE'S
YOUR HAT WHAT'S YOUR HURRY)." In THE GIANT'S HOUSE, the narrator,
librarian Peggy Cort, falls in love with a young man whose large
size confines him within increasingly small boundaries.
McCracken is aware that both her novels are built around unusual
relationships. "In both books the quieter member of the couple
tells the story of his or her life with the
larger–than–life character," she explained.
Although Mike Sharp manages to keep one surprise for his readers to
discover late in the book, foreshadowing is a key element in his
storytelling. The tragedies that befall him are all clearly
revealed prior to their chronological place in the tale. Of those
calamities, only the first --- the death of his beloved sister and
first "partner," Hattie, who falls from the roof of the family home
--- is particularly unusual in its details. But McCracken's
decision to reveal them before they are fully explored is what
gives her, via Sharp, the opportunity to examine them in moving and
richly textured language. Rather than focusing on surprising the
reader with the twists and turns of his life, McCracken's narrator
is able to unlock the hidden details and emotions of each
"At the sound of my voice," Sharp writes, recalling his sister's
accident, "she turned, then wobbled. For a minute I thought her
clumsiness was a joke. She wheeled her arms in the air. In her
white dress against the gray sky, she looked like a movie, dappled
and imprecise, clearly an actual person but not really moving like
Occasionally, McCracken's characters intone phrases that seem a bit
too practiced. Consider this exchange between Sharp and his wife's
"Didn't they listen to the show?" They always listened to the
"No," he said. "They weren't in the mood for comedy."
"Me neither. Sometimes you have to force yourself."
"Forced laughter," said Joseph, "is no kind of laughter at
With Sharp telling the story, however, it's easy to forgive ---
even relish --- these pat responses. After all, the man is a
lifelong storyteller unlikely to be adverse to tweaking the details
of a tale to improve its telling.
It is difficult to imagine this story being told any better than
McCracken tells it. NIAGARA FALLS ALL OVER AGAIN reminds us that
the relationships that bring us the most joy and those that bring
us the most pain are often one and the same.
Reviewed by Rob Cline (RJBCline@aol.com) on January 22, 2011
Niagara Falls All Over Again
- Publication Date: August 7, 2001
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: The Dial Press
- ISBN-10: 0385318375
- ISBN-13: 9780385318372