Magazine article The New Yorker

Appearing Act

Magazine article The New Yorker

Appearing Act

Article excerpt

"Carter Beats the Devil" (Hyperion; $24.95), the debut novel by the journalist and screenwriter Glen David Gold, is about magic tricks, and is something of a magic trick itself: materializing out of nowhere with a flash and a puff of smoke, it is one of the most entertaining appearing acts of recent years. The Carter of the title is an actual historical character, Charles Carter, also known as Carter the Great. An early-twentieth-century American illusionist, he was a popular and successful figure in the conjuring craze associated with Harry Houdini. Though Carter died in 1936 and had been largely lost to history, Gold has insured that his magic will survive.

The novel opens in August of 1923, in San Francisco's Curran Theatre, where Carter is treating yet another packed house to the full complement of onstage illusions: levitation, fire-eating, a suit of armor that comes to life and chases an assistant across the stage. But nothing in the program has prepared the crowd for the spectacular grand finale, in which a volunteer from the audience is drawn by a rope into the upper reaches of the theatre and then falls back onto the stage in several pieces: leg, leg, arm, torso, and, finally, head. The trick would be audacious and grisly no matter who the volunteer, but Carter has selected the most famous man in attendance, who also happens to be the most famous man in America: the President, Warren Ga-maliel Harding. The audience gasps as the dismembered Harding thumps to the stage, and then cheers as Carter cuts open the belly of a dead lion and reveals the beaming President. Two hours later, Harding is dead, and the next day Carter is being sought for questioning.

This breathlessly preposterous opening scene is all the more satisfying for being partly true. President Harding did die in San Francisco, of unexplained causes, in the midst of an apparently healthy middle age, provoking a frenzy of speculation. (Had Harding's wife killed him, aggrieved by his infidelity? Had the President, facing almost certain impeachment, taken his own life?) Though the real Charles Carter was not implicated, the incident was one of the signal mysteries of the Roaring Twenties. After this curtain-raiser, Gold's narrative drops back in time to review the sorcerer's apprenticeship: Carter's childhood as the son of a San Francisco investment banker; his discovery of the dark arts during the Great Blizzard of 1897, while he is trapped without parental supervision in his family's Presidio Heights mansion; his teen-age stint as a coin-and-card man on the second-tier vaudeville circuit. Along the way, Carter travels around the country, finds his fame, falls in love (once with a beautiful redhead, once with a sharp-tongued blind girl), battles a rival magician named Mysterioso, and learns the somewhat metaphysical pleasure of creating a stage illusion.

Glen David Gold's fearless embroidery of history continues for the balance of his five-hundred-page novel: President Harding's special guest appearance is only the first in a string of cameos that includes the Marx Brothers (not quite ready for prime time, they appear in the comedy sketch "Fun in Hi Skule") and the Great Houdini himself. With its blend of actual figures and improbable conspiracies, the book is a younger cousin of E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime"--a hyperactive younger cousin, running off at the mouth and happily out of control. …

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