AN ACTION HERO FOR OBSESSIVE COLLECTORS

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I am an obsessive bibliotaph.  My secret vice is that over the years I have accumulated six thousand private eye novels which I store in a damp basement on the south side of Milwaukee.  Temperature controls, humidity sensors, pffit!  Over the years, I have been asked to share (or sell) a volume in my collection—something which inevitably would send me into a panic.  Now, I have decided to rid myself of this reader’s burden and sell the collection.  However, that decision has been pending for over two years while I fight the lingering haze of megalomania and the collector’s compulsion to always move forward and never back.

So I have a soul mate in Bob Langmuir, one of the three main characters of the non-fiction work Hubert’s Freaks.  Bob is a compulsive collector who violates the cardinal rule of book selling:  don’t be the last one to own the book.  This lie is told early about Bob in the book:  “The pleasure of collecting, he discovered, paled beside the thrill of dealing.”  This just does not prove true when Bob begins to lose his mental abilities and gain the lost photos of Diane Arbus.

Arbus struggled with her role in the world of photography.  Married early to Army photographer Allan Arbus (who ended up abandoning his photography studio, divorcing Diane and starting an acting career that eventually found him playing psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on the television series M*A*S*H.), it was Diane who went on to study with some of the great innovators of photography in New York.  Her interest in picking subjects from the edges of society (or placing average subjects in odd settings) made her work edgy and controversial, a perfect combination to drive up the cost especially when she committed suicide at age forty eight and her estate clamped down on the use and distribution of her photos. 

So when Bob abandons the book selling business to concentrate on all the ephemera surrounding the struggles of African-Americans in America, imagine his excitement when amongst some great finds about the Times Square freak show called Hubert’s Dime Museum and Freak Show, he finds some images he believes are original Arbus photographs that once hung in the lobby.  To back up his claim that he has found undiscovered Arbus images are the journals she kept to document her work.  When he decides to take the items to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the issue is whether the subjects are worthy of being called great art or whether the photos are just snapshots.  The toll that this has on Bob’s life is amazing as he was already a vulnerable and weakened individual.  His ability to persevere is part of what makes this story so compelling. 

The photos introduce the reader to a set of characters who persevere:  Charlie and Virginia Lucas and the freaks from the sideshow.  This loving couple started out in the freak show and ended up managing it through to its last days.  While Virginia became the exotic Princess Shaloo who did the Dance of Love, sometimes with snakes, Charlie became the inside talker or the one who kept the customers moving and paying.  The roles these two African-Americans had to take becomes emblematic of the role of their race in a changing American culture.

The book tells us what made Bob buy and then try to sell the photographs, why Arbus was fascinated with the freaks of Hubert’s as a subject, and the role of people like the Lucas’ who will do anything to make a buck and survive in a challenging America for people of their class and race. 

The book should make a great book to discuss in a non-fiction book club.  The only weakness that I could detect was the story fizzles out without a dramatic conclusion.  Upon reflection, that very dissatisfaction may be one more great issue to deal with when developing the questions needed to drive the discussion. 

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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