Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hubert's Freaks and the old weird America

I just finished reading Hubert's Freaks by Gregory Gibson--fascinating. I found it at the library and had to bring it home when I read the book jacket, which promised a story of a rare book dealer, a long-gone Times Square freak show called Hubert's, and some lost photos by Diane Arbus. I wasn't even sure at first if this was fiction or what. It's not, but it's as weird or weirder than any imaginary tale.

A rare-book dealer named Bob Langmuir, suffering from ADD and assorted emotional issues, but brilliant and a tenacious researcher, buys a stash of archives from Hubert's Museum that belonged to its manager and barker, Charlie Lucas. Charlie and his wife, a snake-dancer who went by the stage name, "Woogie," had been befriended by Diane Arbus, who was interested in photographing the performers of the 42nd Street sideshow. At Hubert's Arbus met Jack Dracula, the completely tattooed man, the giant Eddie Carmel, and Andy Potato Chips, who she shot for "Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C." After studying his find, Langmuir concluded that some of the photos in his collection were actual Arbus prints that she had given to Lucas as a gift.

The story grows from there, from the weird world of ephemera dealers, to the even weirder world of high-art dealers and museum curators. Along the way, several good questions are asked: What makes an Arbus photo an Arbus photo? Who decides these things? What price do you put on a photo, or memorabilia from the old weird America that is now gone? How do you go about selling it anyway?

Throughout, Langmuir finds his own way, and it's all about the journey. If you like old stuff, weird long-gone stuff, art photography, and Diane Arbus with her visionary but creepy brilliance, you won't be able to put this book down. Well, sometimes I had to because it got kind of intense, but not like action-packed--more like emotionally and philosophically intense. Art dealing does that to me.

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