UNDER THE BIG TOP A Season With the Circus by Bruce Feiler. (Scribners: $23; 288 pp.) Henry Ringling North, who knew better than most, called the circus "A Jealous woman . . . a ravening hag who sucks your vitality . . . who will allow no private life." "And yet," he said, "I love her as I love nothing else on earth." Time was when every American boy dreamed of running away to join the circus. (Girls, no, unless prematurely hirsure. The allure was manifold: Hubris, romance, abandon, esprit, a whiff of the sinister . . . no homework. Bruce Feiler never kicked it, and after bouncing about academia, he finally got permission to join the traveling Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. outfit as a clown and writer, professions sometimes indistinguishable. It was a bad choice. The book is as disappointing as a weather cancellation. Feiler is far too nice for the assignment. Aficionados all, we'd love to know what happens when the lights go out, and at first it seems as though Feiler is going to tell us. Contained within a "living embodiment of illusion: Dangerous, daring, tempting, taboo," he writes, are "the Seven Circus Sins: Murder, rape, arson, bigamy, bestiality, group sex and organized rime." All this and elephants too? We salivate. For nothing, it turns out. Feiler only hints at underlying depravity, portraying instead a disappointingly normal knot of working stiffs whose jobs just happen to involve dangling from a wire or getting shot 200 feet from a cannon. To be sure, character works its way through in spite of the author: a seven-foot clown who is one giant step ahead of the law; a tiger tamer, one of whose wards is into bundling ("It feels like I'm kissing a mustache. Sometimes she'll lift her lip and give me some tongue."); an elephant poop-scooper called Pizza Man. Conforming more to Feiler's penchant for the anticlimax is Sean Thomas, the cannon guy. "Flying is the greatest sensation," he says. "Is it like sex?" Feiler asks. "What, are you nuts?"

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