Set against the despairity of the Great Depression, the young hero Jacob Jankowski, leaves veterinary college behind upon learning of the tragic death of his parents and jumps a train which he later discovers belongs to The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He befriends some interesting characters and comes to be the show's vet. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a performer married to August, the head trainer and Jacob's boss.
The story is told by Jacob at the age of 90 (or 93) who unravels the events in a series of memories, from his nursing home, as a circus sets up its tents across the street. Jacob laments that his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have placed him in this "assisted living facility" and dutifully take turns visiting him every Sunday. On this particular Sunday, he awaits the arrival of the designated family members who will take him to the circus. Without giving away too much for those that haven't read Gruen's book, the prologue gives the reader a glimpse at the ending, but the ending has its own unique twist and is written slightly differently. This leaves room for ambiguity and has the reader question Jacob's memory - which is reality and which is illusion?
In this circus world, there is a definite class system that distinguished the importance and rank of the lowliest workmen, to the performers, to the bosses. This ranking included the animals as well. Performing animals were often kept alive on the carcasses of sacrificed work animals deemed unproductive. Your importance was directly related to the money you brought to the show.
In life, the fat lady, was an enormous star (but not so enormous as advertised - 850 lbs - closer to 400) but when she died she was was hauled around town in an elephant cart to drum up business for the show, later to be unceremoniously disposed of. The glamorous, bright, superficial facade was kept in place by the "Patches" who smoothed over any glimpse that the public may have gotten into the reality or underbelly of the circus world (Rosie in the lady's garden was one good example).
Poor old Camel! An alcoholic who suffered greatly from the imposed bans of Prohibition (1919-1933), Camel was on the "Jake" and was diagnosed with Jamaica Ginger Paralysis. His floppy gait soon gave way to paralysis and he was hidden away by Jacob and Walter (a clown) for fear that Uncle Al's (ringleader) men will redlight him (throw him from a moving train) during the night as Camel is no longer useful to the circus.
The charming and dapper head trainer August turns out to be an abusive, sadistic wretch. Silver plated dinners and white tie cannot hide the viciousness of his true character. Even the shiny circus cars, the banners and tents are not as they seem. If one were to look closely, other names of circuses that have fallen to the wayside remain visible underneath the Benzini banner. So, it appears, the Benzini circus itself has fed on the carcasses of other fallen circuses as it chases a dream to be as big as Ringling's.
Even Rosie, the bull elephant turns out to be something different than she appears, and one is left wondering in the end, was it Rosie or Marlena?