In 1949, Warbling Brothers Road Show and Circus travels the back roads of Southern California, playing towns from Lompoc to Palm Springs. As it breaks winter camp and heads south from Richmond, THE BOSS hires Sojourn Parker, just released from San Quentin, to work with the gazonie, those potheads or winos or ex-cons who were the part of every such circus / carnival, big or small. But when Parker begins to take advantage of the other gazonie, the Boss deals with him in the carny way, having the ex-con tossed off the train while moving at full speed. Later when Parker reappears, he complains that he was only fleecing the gazonie. “Yeah,” the Boss answers, “but they’re our gazonie.”
In this the Boss sets up a reoccurring theme. The carney is family, and family takes care of its own.
Each narrator possesses a different voice. The Boss, who opens and closes the book, is a hardboiled realist who is not above murder to protect his people; Becky, the ticket taker, is a lonely widow and a sucker for a man on the make; The musclehead who wrestles all comers discovers that helping a man is not always the best option; Dali the Hunchback wishes he were more like Benji, the Wolf Boy; and, Bobby falls in love with the hoochie koochie dancer only to realize the deception of romantic illusion. These and many others are the people who populate Carney.
The novel opens with the show heading south for the season and ends with the show heading back north for winter quarters. At the beginning the Boss protects his gazonie from an ex-con, and in the final story, he seeks revenge for Lily, a bareback rider raped by a county sheriff. Days after Warbling Brothers has left the area, the Boss returns to settle the score. One dark night he slips into the sheriff’s house and slits his throat. As the sheriff lies dying, the Boss draws up a chair beside the bed and tells the crooked lawman: “I want you to listen carefully so you can understand. When you did what you did to that girl, it was like you did it to my sister--or my daughter. We’re carny, and carny are family, and family is the most important thing in the world.”