The Exploration of the Main Character in Tandolfo the Great
Major Spoilers for Richard Bausch's Tandolfo The Great
For those of you who have been enjoying my random short story reviews, I'm planning to do more full-on book reviews in the near future since this is the main medium I can use to do that. For now, though, I hope you enjoy yet another short story review.
In Richard Bausch’s short story “Tandolfo the Great,” the titular character is a broken-down magician who is not only unhappy in his professional field, but also struggling with his own personal addictions to gambling and drinking. He recognizes that he’s the kind of person that comes and goes from most people’s lives, essentially only invited to birthday parties and other smaller gigs to perform, and he understands that everyone likes him “the way they like distant clownish figures.” However, he doesn’t like the fact that everyone seems to treat him like a flat figure, someone who exists purely for entertainment. In his titular story, he finally breaks down and verbally abuses a kid after an insurmountable build-up -- he’s slightly tipsy, he struggles to get the appropriate materials he needs for his magic trick, and his audience isn’t invested in his act.
Worst of all, though, there’s a girl. A girl who he loves unconditionally. A girl who constantly acted as if she saw him as more than a friend. He’s always believed that gestures mean everything, and the gestures she made towards him seemed more affectionate than a simple friendship -- confiding in him about her personal woes, “her hand lingering on her shoulder when he made her laugh,” and other small endearments that convinced him she loved him. He had bought her a large engagement cake, eager to knock on her door and see her reaction to the cake and to his declaration of love. Then, he sees a letter on his doorstep. Turns out, a man that wasn’t willing to marry her because he was scared of commitment had a change of heart and wants to get married after all. She still wants to see Tandolfo and catch up with him to say goodbye before moving to Houston, however. This revelation is the foundation of Tandolfo’s complete and utter devastation. He keeps trying to hold his pain in, putting on a fake smile for the kids, trying to let the show go on. More and more just keeps building up, though. The uneaten engagement cake looms behind him “like a passenger in the back seat.” The smell drives him crazy, and its presence forces him to constantly think about both his forced happiness in a colorful yet unfulfilling job and his failed relationship with the person he cares most about. His sudden outburst directed at a young boy, while clearly irresponsible and shocking, feels like a natural development of the course of events that have built up around him and the hurt he feels inside.
Bausch’s writing style makes you feel Tandolfo’s misery perfectly, bubbling in sync with his mood until it finally explodes with him, unabashedly irritated in conjunction with Tandolfo leaving the engagement cake in the middle of the road as an act of internal and mental revenge. This writing style allows the reader to connect their own experience with failed love to this broken character, not making you side with the way that he’s acting out on his emotions, but allowing you to understand it by making you empathize with his heartbreak. It’s a fully-fleshed-out character study with foreshadowing and symbolism hidden in the way that Bausch uses the English language, and it feels depressingly authentic. The Great Tandolfo is, in fact, not that great after all -- he’s a flawed, fully-realized human.