“Immersion journalism” describes journalists who go all-in. That means a 24/7 experience with the subject, keeping only the most tenuous ties with your prior life. You can’t get more immersive than the assignment that Michael Sean Comerford gave himself to write American Oz.
He left his family in the Chicago suburbs to spend parts of two years joining 10 carnivals in 36 states, Canada and Mexico while traveling more than 20,000 miles, most of them logged with a hitchhiker’s thumb. By day, and sometimes through the night, he worked side by side with carnival colleagues. Then he’d slip into a bedbug-infested bunk with his laptop or spend what little money he had to work in the comparative comfort of a booth in an all-night pancake house.
You’ll want to join him on that journey, and the good news is that you can do it without the bedbugs. As others have noted, you’ll see influences of authors as disparate as John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s impressive company. It’s a story filled with eloquence, charm, humor, tragedy and resonance.
The title is an apt and obvious reference to The Wizard of Oz, in which the real truth of a fantasy world only emerged from behind the wizard’s curtain. American Oz reveals a world few of us see or have spent much time considering beyond bad food, arcades, sketchy-looking workers and rides populated by dating teens and happy kids. Then overnight, the carnival disappears.
Comerford peels back the carnival curtain. He rejects the cartoon-character stereotypes most of us likely hold of heavily tattooed workers, tossing them into a pejorative bucket called “carnies.” He deftly approaches his new colleagues with fresh eyes and no judgment. In return, they emerge as real people navigating a world that might seem unusual, but sharing the same hopes, dreams, challenges, setbacks, spunk and very American aspirations as everyone else.
It’s an ethnic stew of people who certainly have had anything but lives of privilege, from those trying to stay straight after dealing with prison and drug addiction to single moms and Mexican workers who appreciate the opportunities they have in American carnivals to support families back home.
THE NOMADIC CARNIVAL LIFE
“The carnival adage goes, ‘Haul it, move it, bolt it, block it, level it’,” he writes, describing the blue-collar symphony of safely moving a carnival from town to town. We learn about barkers, ride jockeys, freak shows and a few scams — but not as many as you might think. We learn about long hours, low pay, owners who cheat their workers and owners who care. You’ll see fights and disputes, quiet moments of people caring for each other and universal appreciation for the joy they see in the faces of the children who attend the shows they’ve erected on empty fields.
And you’ll never find a group of people with better nicknames. Who wouldn’t want to know more about people with names like Batman, Chunk of Cheese, Confederate Max, Jimmy Tattoos, Randy the Hat and Uncle Fester?
Comerford’s ability to earn the trust of his colleagues leads him to Tlapacoyan, a remote, dangerous Mexican town that has become home base for many carnival workers. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, exposing realities versus the political posturing that occurs around immigration, labor abuse and what it means to live between two worlds.
The author is a former Pulitzer Prize-nominated international journalist whose bylines have appeared in publications around the world. His wanderlust seems to be part of his DNA. Comerford says he has bicycled across the country three times and hitched across America, Europe and the Middle East in pursuit of stories.
In American Oz, his discoveries tell a larger story about (usually) good people living on America’s margins and, for many, finding a sense of place in the carnival life.
Their stories are our stories. After all, doesn’t it seem like we’re all strolling down the midway of a freak-show carnival arcade these days, trying to get by and make sense of things? For the people in American Oz, it’s just more obvious.
Editor’s note: This review also appears at WindyCityReviews.org, a site operated by the Chicago Writers Association for authors and independent publishers with Chicago connections.