Who knows how Ted Whittemore came upon this fabulation? By way of introduction, I just finished reading Philip Short's enormous and compelling biography of Mao Zedong, published in the year 2000. It is so rich, fascinating, and full of history, chicanery, adventure, corruption. and amazing action, that afterwards you need to inhale straight oxygen from a canister for a while simply to recover.

That's the same feeling produced here by Ted Whittemore's first novel (written long before Philip Short put the hammer to Mao), now reissued twenty-six years after it debuted thanks to Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (in 1974). It's a novel as complicated and luridly interesting as a pornographic tattoo parlor, as recondite (in the extreme) as the Kabala, as comic - sometimes! - as the Three Stooges. In short, it is totally amusing (and intriguing) at every twist and turn (of which there are many)

Talk about your inscrutable orient. Whittemore takes us there, and then some If you like sadistic Japanese gangsters with downright mythical powers, you'll love this book. If fantasmagoric rock and rollers from another age and another country are your bag, Quin's Shanghai Circus should be graphically titillating. If you're in love with the mystical tough underside of our absurdist Twentieth Century skullduggeries, you will get it here served up on a silver platter.

Some of the novel is outrageous cartoon, some is exasperating erudition. All of it is crisply written, occasionally with tongue in cheek, often earnestly weighed down with pathos, and not infrequently suffused with a thrilling violence. Whittemore manipulates history (and convoluted plotlines) like a magician who has smoked enough opium to sink a battleship. "Colorful" is hardly the word for this book; "insane" might be more appropriate, except that despite all the surface confusion the author obviously knows exactly what he is about, and everything eventually comes together.

The story takes place "At the onset of an era given to murders and assassinations," says the narrator, "a time when a hunger for human flesh rumbled in men's bowels. Look what happened in Nanking where a sergeant strangled his own commanding general. When he told me that on the beach, I knew I was hearing a voice direct from the rectum of lunacy. No one but me would probably ever believe such a voice, but that doesn't matter now.

"That voice "direct from the rectum of lunacy" is manipulated, throughout the story. by chance, strained coincidence, deliberate farce, and melodramatic hyperbole. Here's a passage describing how the enormous clown, Geraty, submits to a grilling by Quin himself.

"The fat man muttered and swore, laughed, lied when there seemed no reason to lie, and then corrected himself before wandering off on some byway of his four decades of travel through Asia. He recited Manchurian telephone numbers and Chinese addresses, changed costumes, sang circus songs, beat a drum and played a flute, consumed bowls of horseradish and mounds of turnips, sneaked through the black-market district of Mukden late in 1934 and again in 1935, noting discrepancies, brought out all the peeling props and threadbare disguises of an aging clown working his way around the ring. Grinning, weeping, he eventually revealed how he had discovered thirty years ago that Lamereaux was the head of an espionage network in Japan, a network with such an ingenious communication. system it was the most successful spy ring in Asia in the years leading up to the Second World War. The information had come to Geraty by chance because he happened to fall asleep in a Tokyo cemetery….."

That's a good enough description of this book and its tone. Whittemore thrives on creating apocalyptic confusion and then setting things straight, He loves spies, and enjoys leading us down one path, and then up a totally different one. Half the. Time we don't really know where we're at, but that's the fun - and the funbouse - of it. Whittemore, a master of deceptions, doesn't miss a bewildering trick. At one point a character says, "Life is brief and we must listen to every sound" Novels are essentially brief also, but this prose wonderkind certainly listens to every sound.

I don't know much about Ted Whittemore. He's dead. He died in 1995. Rumor has it that he once worked for the CIA and maybe he was a Russian double agent on the Middle Eastern beat, maybe not. "Whatever," as Kurt Cobain might've said. The fact is, Ted seems to have led a bizarre and complicated and rather mysterious life that fed a bizarre and complicated imagination, and he could write like hell…about hell, and about everything in between.

When you aren't flinching at the pedophiles and the necromancy, you are liable to be chuckling up a storm. In Quin's Shanghai Circus all roads lead to the rape of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937, painted - of course - by the alter ego of Ted Whittemore, Hieronymous Bosch. You don't really want to go there, girlfriend - but you can't stop from turning such deliciously malevolent pages.

It's grotesque, the whole mordant circus, and, sometimes too arcane for words, and often frustrating, and not a little scarey (and excessive) and screwball, but it's about what happened (more or less) leading up to World War II, and the author rarely glosses over the horrors, or the brief magnificent euphorias of our tragic human experience.

After this novel, Whittemore went on to distinguish himself with The Jerusalem Quartet., a vibrant stew of richly invented books that would put Lawrence Durrell on notice, and may yet claim for Ted a piece of the immortal action in our groves of academe.

But Quin's came first, greased the skids, as they say, and it is a fascinating novel. You can't pigeonhole the thing. It can revulse you as much as anything William H. Burroughs (or Hubert Selby Jr.) ever wrote: Naked Lunch meets Last Exit to Shanghai. But although there's a lot of disturbing stuff for the queasy stomach to rebel against, there's also a rich and deranged heartbeat that captures the bustling panorama we all call "home.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here….and prepare for a bumpy, yet illuminating, ride. Tennessee Williams once said something to the effect that if it weren't for his devils his angels would have no place to go. Ted Whittemore has angels and devils galore, and their wide range of halos and pitchforks drive this lusty debauch toward its rousing conclusion.

You can't say I didn't warn you….but isn't that the point?© John Nichols
Taos, New Mexico 2002

John Nichols is author of The Sterile Cuckoo and The Milagro Beanfield War. His most recent novel is The Voice of the Butterfly.


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016