Review: The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

A colorful novel of the circus world of the 1940s and 1950s, rich in detail, bursting with power and emotion.  Mario Santelli, a member of the famous flying Santelli family, is a great trapeze artist. Tommy Zane is his protege.

As naturally and gracefully as they soar through the air, the two flyers find themselves falling in love. Mario and Tommy share sweet stolen moments of passion, but the real intensity of their relationship comes from their total devotion to one another and to their art.

As public figures in a conservative era, they cannot reveal their love. But they will never renounce it.

Review by Erastes

As a fan of circus stories, and someone who has been so since a little kid, this was something I was really looking forward to.  I had very few preconceptions, as I didn’t know what era it was set in or whether it had a romance ending, or anything.  I love films such as Trapeze (I saw the homoerotic subtext in there, even before I discovered gay romance) and The Greatest Show on Earth so as I say I was happy to jump in to The Catch Trap.

And overall I wasn’t disappointed.  Tommy Zane  is the young son of lion tamers who realises early on that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and train the big cats, he’s always wanted to fly–and before the Santellis arrive at the second-rate circus his family is working in–he hasn’t been given the chance.  He has, however, had a lot of experience in many related disciplines; he helps out with the aerial ballet, does tumbling and generally helps out wherever needed.  When watching one of the flyers working, he’s invited up onto the practice rig, and his life changes forever.

The story is–at its core–the tale of the romance between Tommy and Mario, and this takes many years to spin out, and has inevitable ups and downs, but it’s a lot more than that too.  Mario is working on a triple somersault, something that had, at this time (1940s/1950s) only been done by a very few people.  In fact, it was, before someone did it, considered an impossible feat.

A note should be added here about the history.  In a lengthy foreword, the author explains that she decided for various reasons to make the history of the trapeze and in particular, the triple somersault, an alternate history. I can see her concerns, considering the homosexual plotline, but I wish she hadn’t done it, as I always like to be informed when reading, saying to myself “I did not know that!” and as she’s invented the first proponent of the triple, and the men who are performing it, I didn’t get that kick of real history.

After a while, Tommy is invited to train properly and moves in with the Santelli family, a vast, bickering exuberant bunch. The family Santelli is a wonderful invention, from the matriarch down to the children.  The family are all flying mad, and are held together by discipline and tradition going back fifty years.  At times I found the endless bickering and arguing repeitive in the extreme, and there’s sometimes too much dialogue which goes nowhere, and could easily have been cut, but this doesn’t spoil the story overall.  Like all families, there’s good and bad, and acceptance, when it does come, comes from an unexpected source, and rejection and bigotry also comes from a source you don’t see coming.

Tommy is fifteen when he’s first approached sexually by Mario, so people who find anyone having sex under 18 as distasteful are going to want to avoid this.  I admit I found it mildly disturbing–not because of Tommy’s youth even in the times that this was set–but because Mario’s first approach came over as little more than “interfering” with Tommy when he was in no position to object (they were sitting in the back of a moving car).  Previous to this they had been sharing a bed, and arms had been put around each other “in sleep” and “unconscious” kisses exchanged, but this was passed off by Tommy as that Mario was asleep and didn’t know what he was doing.  It didn’t matter to me that Tommy was accepting of this back seat advance, Mario knew that Tommy could hardly scream “get off me!” and so in this case I did, as I said, find it a little creepy, even though Tommy didn’t mind.

This is actually echoed by Mario, as the first part of their relationship is peppered with a lot of guilt and disgust on his part as he castigates himself for having “corrupted” Tommy and is justifiably scared of what would happen if it was found out, as he’s about 8 years older, he knows that Tommy would not–in all likelihood–have anything really bad happen to him, but it would be jail for Mario, and that’s somewhere he’s been before.

At times I found Mario pretty hard going, and I think that if I was Tommy I would have given up on him pretty early on, but Tommy is in love and there’s little stronger than a teenager’s first love.  Their relationship is pretty stormy; inevitable really, considering the pressure cooker it’s kept in–not being able to be openly affectionate in any way, keeping it secret despite sharing a room.  Both of them have hot tempers, Mario in particular, and this is another reason why I lost respect for him, because his own self-loathing breaks into violence with Tommy on more than one occasion.

Tommy is a little difficult to get to know–he goes through a lot, but because the author rarely lets us into anyone’s head, it’s hard to fathom.  He leaves home for the Santellis and hardly looks back, or thinks about his parents, and even when a tragedy hits him–one that I know would have poleaxed me for weeks, it’s hardly mentioned after the occurrence.  I’m sure the author didn’t mean to make him shallow, she’s probably concentrating on other aspects of the plot, but at times he comes across as such.

It’s very much Tommy’s story–and we follow it from his underage crush, to the state where he’s grown up and out from Mario’s aggressive and over-moody wing and begins to doubt whether he can live with this man, this secret and this family any more, and what place he’ll ever have in Mario’s life, and how to achieve it.

What I was a little disappointed with, is that there’s not enough of the life of the circus in the description.  There’s a good deal of the trapeze of course, and I learned a lot–the Catch Trap for example is the Catcher’s Trapeze–but there wasn’t enough of the daily routine, little description of the tearing down and the rebuilding of the circus, few interractions with all the varied people who must frequent such a place, and I would have liked to have seen more of that.

Anyone expecting an easy, loving romance should be aware, it’s simply not that.  There are very few scenes where the couple are comfortable and sweet with each other, and that’s just how it should be.  It’s often an uncomfortable read–a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not only with the fear of the discovery of their relationship, or for queerbashing purposes, but because of the very real danger that the flyers face, every time they climb the ladders onto the rig.  I doubt Ms Bradley ever flew, but she’s certainly done her research.

I’m slicing a star off from the review for the beginning love scene, and for the uneven and often repetitive writing. It’s a large book, and would have benefited from a bit of a chop here and there.  But as a stimulating and thoughtful romance, forged in danger and cemented in the air,  it’s certainly a book that will keep you thinking about the protagonists, long after you’ve finished.

What’s unbelievable, in these days of a gay romance boom, that this book is out of print, and copies aren’t that easy to come by, and often are hugely expensive, but if you fancy a good read, then keep trying, you’ll pick one up eventually. Despite the missing star, I do consider this to be an Essential Read for anyone serious about writing gay historical fiction.

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12 Responses

  1. @Erastes: Yes, that book made quite an impression on me when I read it (a battered, terrible-looking copy from the library) as a teenager. However, I loathe Miss Zimmer-Bradley’s writing, so I never re-visited it. But I do remember I found that first scene in the car very hot. :)

  2. I read this when it was first out, and mostly remember disliking Mario, enough to wish that Tommy would find someone else. It’s a milestone, but I doubt I’d read it again.

  3. This was the first non-fanfic m/m I ever read, back when I was a teenager. I bought it in hardcover at an SF con and had it stolen a day later, then got a paperback a little while after that, determined to own a copy, even though I’d already read it.

    Mario and Tommy weren’t the easiest people to like or get close to, but I loved them together and got impatient with the story when they were apart. I also hated the modernization of the Santellis after the old man died, although I’d probably have been grouching right along with most of the other younger family members if I’d been there.

    It’s not a sweet genre romance, no, but it’s an excellent story and a great intro to old-school but not really porny gay romance.

    Angie

  4. Erastes,

    I’m so glad you reviewed this! I’ve had it on my “do a review someday” shelf but always shied away because I felt so ambivalently about the book and feared offending the legions of Catch Trap lovers out there. I read it back in the days when it wasn’t all that easy to find stories with gay protagonists, much less prominent gay romances, and to I pounced when I found a copy through my local public library.

    The problem for me was twofold. One, the portrayal of the Santellis always struck me as borderline ethnocentric. A populous, loud, hot-tempered Italian-American family? Really? But my second objection was stronger, and it took me years to be able to articuate it: Tommy & Mario suffer from too many of the negatives imposed upon gay characters in mainstream media. There’s sexual predation, a propensity to violence, and an apparent authorial inability to let anything go well for the pair. (I think of this as Mercedes Lackey Syndrome, but that tends to get me in trouble when I say it out loud.) The only media shackle missing here is the one that plays gays for comic relief. I know many avid readers of gay fiction, queer and otherwise, cherish this book as iconic. But like The Front Runner, I prefer to think of it as a product of its time (more so even than the time in which it was set, in The Catch Trap’s case), something to acknowledge with proper, but not overweening, respect before moving on.

    Lee

  5. Hi Lee – and thanks!

    Yes, I agree with you over the Mario/Tommy thing – and then there’s also the infidelity, because of course gay men are incapable of being faithful /irony and it’s all about the sex

    I wonder where gay fiction went wrong, really – Maurice set the bar high, happy ending, sweet happy scenes (even though there were dark moments such as Maurice trying to cure himself) – but for so many years the gays had to suffer. Can people blame us for giving them happy times now. (well yes, obviously some people do…)

  6. I think gay literary fiction’s reputation for being ‘depressing’ stems from its efforts to reflect realites of gay experience. But there’s a lot to be said for that strain of literary endeavor that presents gay persons and experience more positively. A book like The Catch Trap is hard to “read” as other than reinforcing dominant ideology about gays; as you say, violent, guilt-ridden, self-hating, and incapable of real love or fidelity. To my mind, gay genre fiction, when done well, is a point of hope and (if I dare say) positive social change.

  7. Well, obviously I do not agree totally.

    I think The Catch Trap has it’s problems sure, it is long and ploddy and lots of things but realism is not one of those problems in fact it works much harder towards being a realistic portrayal “character wise” of the “type” of gay men I would expect to be attempting to live openly back then.

    If you need a quick reference you can see some of what I am talking about in The Naked Civil Servant which is surprisingly also about this same period of time although in Britain. Look at how Quentin Crisp lived as an “openly gay man”. At one point he was a prostitute and you know why? Because “why not make your money in an illegal way” if you are already “living in a way that will get you put in jail”. It’s all relative and you have to remember that people flaunting being gay were already thinking and already considered themselves breaking the law.

    As far as the depressing parts what would you expect? It is not sanitized or white washed or even written towards our current romantic ideals and I like that.

    The whole first Mario and Tommy sex scene was perfect for young male sexual experimentation hell I had something like that happen. The living arrangements Mario had so he could get out of the house to mess around with gay guys but not take them back to any place where he might be recognized that’s the whole double life and double standards of the 40s and 50s right there. I lived that in the military I know all about that stuff.

    The whole infidelity played out for the new gay couple as it should in a streetwise way. Tommy wanted something that Mario knew was not going to last in their current situation and could be a huge problem eventually. Mario wanted Tommy to learn not to put himself at risk by becoming a gay man or a gay couple. He really loved Tommy and wanted Tommy to go live a “normal life” as a heterosexual if he could. A lot of guys still think this way. What is so freaking unbelievable here? Remember people believe that Gay was all simply a matter of choice a type of perversion or sin and evidence of a lack of strong will power to live and love the right way.

    There is a lot of internalized self hate being expressed in the book which was normal for the day and makes it so real to me and the whole fear of commitment due to the known threat of being found out IF you did even decide to OMG become a homosexual couple and take a chance at really getting messed with or in trouble with the law.

    None of that surprised me it all felt perfect for the story being told and none of it came across to me in a negative way about gay people. In fact it added an understanding of what Tommy had to fight against to get the type of setup he wanted with Mario. To think that was something that Marion wrote just to abuse her gay characters is the wrong way to see it in my opinion.

    If anything I think it points out the differences I see in what is now consider “Gay Historical Romance” these days with people trying to constantly white wash the emotional reality these men lived what with there being “fidelity” or even a “long term gay romance” when most likely that would so not going to be the case.

    I am all for the HEA way of thinking but not about “domesticating gay men” who would never dream of thinking in that “post Kinsey Report” way of trying to act like June & Ward Cleaver. They were rebelling they were living against the law.

    Again please go read The Naked Civil Servant and then take that view of Quentin’s and place it over this book as a template. These are not radicals they are working class men. They thought of themselves as LAW BREAKERS and LIARS and PERVERTS and they thought all that in a “streetwise way” while trying to maintain a thin veneer of “legality” and a “good lie” to hide the real things going on behind closed doors that might get them arrested and in a lot of ways they hated themselves for that.

    Marion does show how this normalization of homosexuality thinking eventually does change as the years go by and the book start to head into the 60s again she is not white washing what people thought of themselves in the 40s or 50s.

    • Yes! absolutely. In fact, a good story to illustrate this in today’s fiction is Alex Beecroft’s Wages of Sin which Dear Author reviewed recently and weren’t convinced by the “romance” whereas actually it’s not a romance at all, it’s basically two men who fall into a sexual relationship which of course the romance crowd aren’t used to.

      The historical stories where the hero angsts about whether he’s homosexual or not (obviously depending on the era) annoy me, because they generally considered themselves perverts (and corrupters, law breakers) – as you rightly say, TP, and have to either come to terms with that or not. Alex’s book has a scene where after his first sexual encounter he feels he must have it “painted all over him” and when his valet dresses him he finds it amazing that the man does realise “he’s a sod” it’s not angst, it’s simply – “ok – I’m disgusting to society, but I’m going to have to find a way to deal with this”

      I appreciated Mario’s self-loathing, and although that made me less sympathetic to him as a character, in the same way that I would become less sympathetic to a brother-in-law who broke into violence with a sister, it doesn’t make me appreciate the portrayal of him any less – I really applaud the book for its gritty honesty, it’ll certainly be something I read again and again and I’m sure I will discover more, and my opinion will change – sometimes I think we shouldn’t review a book on one reading.

      To be honest, I wish that more publishers were more open with more unhappy books, many of them say “we’ve had enough of the suffering and the dead gay” and i’m not sure that’s a good thing.

      • It’s not an easy book especially on an initial read through. Too much junk stuffed into one read. You can look at it as what I like to call My Big Fat Gay Circus Book. That’s why I really do think this was her baby something she fiddled with and worked on for years.

        It was like her big master stroke at a full on gay romance so Marion went for broke. It’s got layers on it’s layers.

  8. To be honest, I wish that more publishers were more open with more unhappy books, many of them say “we’ve had enough of the suffering and the dead gay” and i’m not sure that’s a good thing.

    They do not have to be unhappy books.

    Quentin Crisp ~ The Naked Civil Servant is a funny book about a real life witty man who happens to know he has all this self loathing because it was beat in to him by a world he saw around him full of contradictions. Armistead Maupin ~ Tales Of The City is a hellaciously funny read that also deals with self loathing but also a city full of people living contradictory lives.

    I am not about the whole “suffering” deal. If I read another AIDS memoir I will slit my own HIV+ throat. I mean come on in order to survive you have to find a sense of humor in it all not wallow in goth emo territory for eternity.

  9. Teddypig’s take makes sense to me. Tommy and Mario are not young lords with valets and bad cases of angst. They are artist-athletes doing dangerous physical work who live much of their lives in public. Given the times and settings in which they live, it is impossible for them to find the kind of blissful candy-coated romance that some readers of historical fiction seem to demand. These guys probably can’t even imagine such a situation. They have no real privacy and enormous amounts of frustration to work through. I read the novel three or four times after it came out. It never occurred to me that this was anything less than a gritty, realistic portrayal of ethnic, working class people trying to make the best of the hands they were dealt. They survive.

    Some of the characters and situations in “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Trapeeze” differ a good bit from the supposed suburban norms of the members of their audiences. The clown who never removes his makeup, for instance. Obviously a different kind of mainstream art but creepy in their own ways.

    Did I do a bit of trap work back in high school? Sure. Was I any good? Thank heavens Noooo.

  10. FYI: From Publishers Lunch today

    NONFICTION
    Biography

    Dean Jensen’s THE FINAL TRIPLE, set against the backdrop of the circus in the late 19th and early 20th century, the true story of the life, career, and tragic death of the world famous trapeze artist and circus performer Leitzel, known as the Queen of the Air, and her star-crossed love affair with the equally renowned performer Alfredo Codona, to Jenna Ciongoli at Crown, in a pre-empt, by Eileen Cope at Trident Media Group (World).
    lkaplan@randomhouse.com

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