The old, weird America

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

IF you believe Gregory Gibson, which for the moment I'm happy to do, it all began with freak shows. American pop culture that is, from highbrow to low. I'm oversimplifying wildly of course, and so is Gibson, but for argument's sake, let's start with the "dime museums" of the 19th century -- palaces of curiosities that displayed portraits of famous men, artifacts of conquered peoples and all manner of oddities from mud turtles to mermaids. P.T. Barnum's American Museum featured a lecture room, where, for their betterment, the paying masses could view uplifting dramas, Siamese twins and a microcephalic African American from New Jersey billed as a "missing link" between man and ape.

The dramas morphed into vaudeville, the portrait halls into our finer art museums and the freak shows (perhaps) into everything else -- but first into free-standing freak shows, either carnival sideshows or independent amusement halls such as the famed Hubert's Museum, which held its ground on New York's 42nd Street until the late 1960s. This genealogy -- in which "American Idol," the Getty Center and Sealo the Seal Boy all sprout from the same root -- may be less than watertight, but it does explain a lot.

Gibson's story starts with a black man named Richard Charles "Charlie" Lucas. He is perhaps the most intriguing figure in "Hubert's Freaks," which is saying quite a bit. During the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, Charlie Lucas presided over the "Darkest Africa" exhibit as "African Chief of the Duckbill Women," a.k.a. "WooFoo, the Immune Man." He wore a bone through his nose and swallowed fire. (The fair that year celebrated, without irony, a "Century of Progress.") He and his wife, the beautiful Woogie, eventually settled in New York, and Lucas found work managing Hubert's Museum, where Woogie performed her snake-charming act alongside the aforementioned Sealo, Professor Heckler's Flea Circus, Mildred the Alligator Skin Girl, a Russian midget named Andy Potato Chips and Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant.

Not incidentally, Lucas was befriended there by photographer Diane Arbus, who talked her way into the homes of his colleagues and shot what would later become iconic photos of, among others, Andy Potato Chips with two other midgets in his Uptown living room and Eddie Carmel bent beneath the ceiling of his Bronx apartment, his parents looking like frightened Lilliputians beside him.

So when Bob Langmuir -- the protagonist of Gibson's tale, a rare-book dealer and collector of African Americana -- happened across a trove of Lucas' papers, he had reason to be excited. They formed an archive not only of the lost world of Hubert's Museum but also of Lucas' life, which had ended in 1991 when he was 82. Lucas did not record his presumably complex feelings about playing a cartoon savage for the amusement of white audiences, but he did leave page after page of journal entries describing money troubles ("God I hope that I can save 1000 and get out of Huberts museum"), dreams of Woogie's snakes and odd scraps of poetry with their own weird beauty: "the business of 1952 is getting the old. / it doesn't make slightest diff in the dawn's dump light."

More to the point, among Lucas' letters and notebooks Langmuir found more than two dozen 11- by 14-inch photographs. Langmuir was fairly sure they were hitherto unknown but authentic Arbus prints. Worth maybe $100 during her lifetime (she committed suicide in 1971), Arbus' photos were selling for tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars by the turn of the millennium. It was like finding the Hope Diamond in a garage-sale jewelry box.

Gibson is himself an antiquarian book dealer, and interested as he is in Arbus and Lucas, he's chiefly captivated by the hunt and the deal. It's a credit to his narrative ability that he can turn a happy anecdote -- struggling dealer stumbles on a fortune -- into a novel-length tale of remarkable suspense. In Gibson's hands, an all-night negotiation with a collector called G.T. Boneyard over more Hubert's memorabilia (including, unknown to Boneyard, five additional Arbus prints) is a real cliffhanger.

Langmuir becomes for Gibson a vehicle with which to explore the landscape of secondhand buying and selling in America, ranging from squalid storage-room auctions to Sotheby's and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the process, we learn not only about the freak show demimonde and the rise of a market for high-art photography but also about Langmuir's neuroses, his alcoholic breakdown and ugly divorce, his battles to recover from all of the above.

Trying hard to tie these strands together -- to make of these divergent worlds a single story -- Gibson sometimes overreaches. Langmuir barely survived a car wreck on the day of Arbus' death He and Lucas shared the same birthday and the same initials. And of Langmuir's unearthing of Arbus' photos, Gibson muses, "Could it be that he had been given these discoveries in order to reunite Charlie and Diane? Was his very being the mystical vessel in which this union was to be accomplished?"

Um, no. And no. Arbus would likely have prickled at these notions. "What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's," she once said of her photos. "That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own."

But Gibson wants to keep things tidy. He goes out of his way to defend Arbus from the critical assaults of Susan Sontag, who, not entirely unfairly, called the photographer a "supertourist," dipping underground and collecting disturbing trinkets for the audience back home. His reasoning is less than rigorous -- he dismisses Sontag as catty. ("[I]t seems likely that Sontag considered Arbus a rival for ascendancy in the hip and glamorous zone that marked the intersection of pop culture and high culture.") But he does get what Sontag missed: that Arbus' images of freaks are anything but freakish. Her midgets and hermaphrodites gaze at the camera with warmth and generosity. Many of her shots of "normals," on the other hand, are positively deranged. Misery and suspicion twist their faces. Only the freaks look anything like human.

Such partisanship gives Gibson room to enlist Arbus -- as well as Lucas and Langmuir -- in the service of "the old, weird America." The term was coined by the rock critic Greil Marcus to refer to the land of myth, violence and transcendence described in early American folk music. But Gibson uses the phrase with convenient vagueness to refer to "that mystical alternative republic" that "at once inspires and explains the strangeness of our daily lives."

Sounds glorious. But Gibson's story is about an even more venerable American tradition:.buying low, selling high, finding something valuable others didn't know they had. Lucas' papers and Langmuir's Arbus prints were sold this month for an undisclosed sum by a New York auction house, which had estimated their worth at between $1.8 and $2.5 million. The old, weird America is selling better than ever. *

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