Author: Michael Lancaster

Publisher: Ballyhoo
ISBN-10: 0615655920
ISBN-13: 978-0615655925

Imagine hearing John Ringling of The Ringling Brothers Circus recall his incredible life and reveal those memories to you on a snowy spring night in New York.

Michael Lancaster spent more than thirty years listening to stories handed down from the four brothers that created the iconic entertainment still touring the world today. A sculptor and artist, he has dared to apply his creative talents to writing for the first time. Ringling The Last Laugh serves as his debut novel.

Writing teachers always tell their students to write about what they know. Michael has wisely taken that path, inscribing for future generations the back stories of the “Boys from Baraboo” and composing his novel in a style that makes the story feel as if John Ringling was actually reminiscing about his life. The approach is riveting. 

This is a very different approach to the Ringling story,” Lancaster says, “as it is a rags to riches and back to rags story—a love story and a story of great betrayal . . . a visceral approach to a visionary man who has lost his way. He has become old and vulgar and is searching to make a comeback.  It is mostly written in the first person, as John is recalling the strategic events in his life.”

When considering a debut novel, readers are usually as curious about the author as they are about his or her writing. So, just who is Michael Lancaster? With this book, readers take a front row seat to the three-ring circus of John’s life, an appropriate position since Lancaster is the great-grandson of Charles Ringling—one of the five Ringling brothers. “I am not with, nor did I grow up with the circus,” he explains. “For over thirty-five years, I have been a potter, a sculptor, and recently a painter. As a child, I was on the lot while my mother painted some of her best work. She was a 20th century portraitist. Her last commission in 1991 before she died being Hugh Carey for New York State. Maybe the lack of growing up with the show made me desire more of it and thus the story. My father was Stuart Lancaster, an actor known for Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands.” 

According to the official product description for Ringling The Last Laugh, “John Ringling, the Great Circus King, exited Madison Square Garden through a dark back alley. He walked out to 49th Street and met an old friend he hadn’t seen in decades. Ringling, almost seventy, was disheveled and alone. The two of them sat at a bar near Union Square, where John Ringling recounted the story of the five Ringling Brothers, their circus, and John’s story as the ‘last one on the lot.’ Seemingly in ruin then, John Ringling has had ‘the Last Laugh,’ not only on those who forsook him but on the amusement world and the art world.”

The formulaic set up for the story has been used in many novels and movies, but the device springs to new life in Lancaster’s novel. Essentially a collection of short stories that describe the people and events that shaped John’s destiny, thematic diversity and wealth of detail overfill each segment. Lancaster’s construction resonates with a golden glow that reminds readers of great American novels from the past that were initially serialized before reemerging in a book format. At 277 pages of what appears to be single line spacing, the massive novel invites readers to spend many hours being drawn into a whirlpool of years that define the lives of the Ringling brothers and their ancestors. Each chapter begins suddenly, unfolds with fascinating brevity, and ends unexpectedly. Readers can submerge into the cacophony of accounts or skip from an incident description to a character portrait the way a trapeze artist catapults from platform to swinging bar. The book allows many restarts over many hours spent savoring the colorful tapestry of one man’s sensational life. 

Back matter consists of several elements usually found only in a nonfiction book: a conclusion by the author, a Glossary of Circus Terms, an Appendix explaining The Fifty One Rules, and a closing Acknowledgment page.

For those desiring to know more about the history and evolution of The Ringling Brothers and their circuses, prepare to be thrillingly engaged by the salty, profane, captivating, and unforgettable memories of John Ringling as told to his brother’s great grandson.