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Other Book Reviews:

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young
Carter Beats the Devil
Glen David Gold (Hyperion, 2001)

In a similar vein as Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay, Glen David Gold's debut mines the historical past for characters and events, playing the exciting but bygone world of vaudeville off early-20th century history. He goes Chabon one better though, and chooses a real-life person as his lead character, a magician called Carter the Great. Houdini, Warren G. Harding, Philo T. Farnsworth, and a young Groucho Marx are part of the book's cast of characters.

Carter Beats the Devil begins with an investigation into President Harding's mysterious death just two hours after participating in one of Carter's magic acts. The plot is intricately wound - tight, though occasionally difficult to follow for all its twists and turns. Ultimately, it is highly rewarding trick: Will Carter the Great pull off eluding capture and fooling the early-20th centuries best and brightest business moguls?

Charles Carter and his younger brother, James, stumble into magic during the 1987 blizzard of San Francisco. They manage to parse together enough tricks to put on a show for an ill-tempered house servant, who upon completion of the act makes the boys subjects of his own trickery. (I'm being obtuse here on purpose. What follows is a disturbing little passage that gets short-shrifted for meaning and consequence.) But Carter is hooked. Along his path to greatness, Carter meets his true love, fraternizes with the third-most famous man in the world (Houdini), and tussles with his nemesis, a blowhard magician called Mysterioso. And, according to one Secret Service agent, may have had a slight hand in killing the President of the United States.

However, magic sets no one free here. Carter is a terminally lonely man who, when asked why he took up magic, thinks, "How could he say he'd become a magician because he felt abandoned once in a lonely house? How he'd fought off loneliness so many time by picking up a deck of cards that now it was simply rote?" Thus, a rich, well-drawn character emerges as our hero. Carter's rival from the Secret Service, Griffin, is just as lonely, but his isolation comes from being hated and mistrusted by his coworkers and sometimes himself. In his own haphazard way, he vows to uncover his man.

Gold's fabricated bits must have been ecstasy for the novelist to write, and he makes good use of his imagination and facts here. G-man Griffin, doing background work on Carter, reads a group of fantastic news clippings that recount his prey's history and going-ons - one more inventive and original than the next.
"Charles Carter has announced that near the town of Grindu, in the Carpathian Mountains, the mage from whom he learned all of his occult arts lies near death. Carter must travel 8,000 miles to his side, bringing the plans for 'The Sultan and the Sorcerer' the spectacular illusion that ends his program, so that the great master may be burned with them. 'Thus the show will never be performed again, and I positively must leave next Thursday.' "
Just as it's a pleasure to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's florid prose, it's a pleasure to read Gold's historical missives - so full of the real things (places, events, people) but so steeped in their own fabrication. Gold obviously enjoys the past and all its idiosyncrasies and language, and so successfully dotting his narrative with history, the reader feels comforted as the enthralling and nuanced tale unfolds. Unlike, say, Pat Barker's historical novels where history is re-examined to get to the core of something we missed the first time, Gold re-animates history for pleasure, for his novel is concerned with people not times.

It is the small bits that tell us how much the author loves and knows his characters, particularly his main character, Carter. Gold understands the profundity of how the mind jumps when thinking. This is most beautifully illustrated when Carter thinks about love and passion. In a short paragraph, Carter leaps from missing his brother, to missing a woman he is taken with: "Carter wondered what James was doing right now. James was terrific at poker. Perhaps he was making friends at Yale. The longer Carter thought about that, the more he wanted to find Sarah." With a deft hand and light stroke, Gold lets the reader into Carter's drive and intentions by these loose but entirely natural connections; it's a furtive glance at how the characters' minds and emotions are attached.

Like many novels relying on plots wound tight as a drum, the middle of Carter Beats the Devil sags under its own weight and complexity. The twists and sleight-of-hand become hard to keep in line, but ultimately - as with many mystery novels - it's ok to forget some nuances; you'll won't miss the whole picture. The payoff in Carter, though, is immense. The novel's climactic scene is paced methodically, so you don't miss the wonderful way his clues and characters come together. Hell, it sounds trite, but it's magical how well Gold accomplishes his misdirection, ultimately keeping the suspense heightened until to the novel's moment of conclusion.

 

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