“I’ve got a lot to do. That’s what keeps me around,” says Jeff Metcalf, who has been in a battle with cancer for the past 18 years, with many ups and downs during that time. He possesses a sense of purpose and determination that very few of us can claim to match. Metcalf’s energies are divided between his devotion — some might call it obsession — to fly fishing, developing nationally recognized writing programs, and teaching. His energy has become even more sharply focused on his own writing in recent years, with the publication of multiple works of nonfiction that have received both critical and popular recognition. Jeff Metcalf is a writer with a wealth of experience and insight, and many stories still left to tell. With a sense of urgency, he is doing exactly that.
Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival is Metcalf’s most recent work to be published, but one that he has wanted to tell for a very long time. The account is fictional, but firmly based in the real-life experiences of the author. “Everyone always asks how much of the story is true, how much of it really happened to me. I’m calling it fiction, though probably 70 percent of it is about my experience running away and joining a carnival when I was 15 and a half years old,” Metcalf reports.
The first 30 pages of Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival draw the reader immediately into a series of bad decisions as the main character, Hub Walker, finds himself in trouble with the law and decides to run. Leaving friends, family, and the relative comfort of home behind, Hub makes his way to Evanston, Wyoming, where he joins a traveling carnival that happens to be in town.
Hub quickly gains favor with the crew and joins them in their journey across the western states. He soon experiences the harsher realities of life on the road, including sore muscles, hunger, and violent prejudice. “People think of running away to join the carnival as this romantic adventure, but I learned pretty quickly that it really isn’t,” Metcalf speaks from his own experience. Hub learns right away that many people think of the carnival workers as a lower form of life, and he has a dangerous encounter while hitchhiking to town.
I could see a couple of young guys in cowboy hats talking back and forth with each other and looking pretty carefully at me. I gave them a nod and then stuck my thumb out when they passed me.
When they pulled the truck off the side of the road, I got that gut feeling that things were about to change. I recognized them almost immediately. The guys who’d hassled me earlier. My perfect morning and feeling like the world was going right was about to change. I slid my hand into my pocket and pulled out my switch blade and flipped the blade open. I kept it palmed in my hand.
Hub comes to depend on his fellow carnival workers (“carnies”) to help him survive. Hub’s closest companion and one of the more remarkable characters of the novel is Jesus, a hardened but sophisticated man with a mysterious past who takes the young man under his wing. When they first meet, Hub can’t help but stare at the tattoos that cover Jesus’ body.
His back was fully tattooed from top to bottom and his arms looked like sleeves from a jacket like he’d just slipped into a snake skin or something.
“Looking at them, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” I couldn’t lie because they were mesmerizing and he knew I was looking. They were truly beautiful.
He turned to face me and the front of his body was a continuation of the back and it was a story of some sort. Not random tattoo stuff but a novel of sorts. A skin story.
In Hub Walker, we find a courageous, imperfect hero who comes to represent the good and bad in everyone. At times he is brave, in other moments he turns and runs. Hub is not afraid to stand up and fight, but often finds himself in need of rescue.
While Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival contains many important lessons — on justice, courage, inequality, strong character, loyalty, consequences — these ideas are not forced on the reader. There is a depth of meaning in these pages, but it is also a wonderfully entertaining story. A fantastic level of specific, vivid detail serves as a reminder that the author actually lived many of the experiences reflected in this book. One theme Metcalf hopes will be noticed by readers is particularly meaningful to him on a personal level. Hub’s teacher is an inspiration to him and stands in his defense in a moment of need. “My teachers saw something in me. I always loved reading and found solace in stories,” Metcalf says. “English teachers didn’t force me to read, but inspired me by assigning books that were very meaningful to me. In the story, Hub’s teacher is there to speak on his behalf.”
In Jeff Metcalf, we find an individual who displays impressive courage. Metcalf faces the challenges of present by weaving difficult lessons from his past into a work that truly inspires. Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival is a work that grew considerably in scope from the author’s original intent of simply recounting an experience from his youth. Metcalf shares a thought on the evolution of this book: “You may have an idea and it turns out to be bigger than yourself. I had an idea that this book would be a young adult novel, but it was much bigger. It’s a coming-of-age story, but most of us are still coming-of-age when we are 70. Like me for example.”
Jeff Metcalf refuses to stop, or be slowed down. In addition to upcoming readings and interviews in support of Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival, he continues to teach courses at the University of Utah. Readers and fans of Metcalf’s writing will be happy to hear that he has big plans for the near future. He is currently working on two more novels.
Wacko’s City of Fun Carnival
King’s English Bookshop