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Books: Carter Beats the Devil

Prior to our Thanksgiving Extravaganza, The Queen announced that she was in need of a book. I immediately went out and procured a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the best thing I read in 2002. Then, wishing I could read K&C again for the first time, I looked it up on Amazon and noted the "People Who Bought This Also Bought" section; number one amogst the titles listed was (at the time) Carter Beats The Devil. And since I see no reason to doubt the judgement of a bunch of amalgamated consumer data, I picked up a copy of Glen David Gold's first novel for myself.

It's easy to see why fans of K&C would also enjoy Carter, because both books are aimed squarely at the Houdini-phile. Set in the 1920's, the story traces the career of Carter the Great, a professional prestidigator in the Golden Era of Magic. Carter begins as a second-rate act in a third-rate circus, but soon claws his way to the top, making lifelong friends (and enemies) along the way. As Carter grows in popularity, he finds himself grappling with love, rival magicians, the FBI, and even a band of pirates. And, at some point, Carter the Great finds himself in the middle of an war for the biggest technological advance of the age.

The detail that Gold uses in describing the mechanics and execution of the protagonist's illusions are a real treat, making the reader feel like he is sitting in the theater and watching a master of the conjuring trade at work. In a few cases the author reveals how certain tricks are done, but he's usually content to simply report what a viewer would see, allowing you to be another bedazzled member of the audience. The whole tale is infused with the excitement and wonder that magic itself generated at the time, before TV showed up and turned us into a nation of jaded bores.

Although I enjoyed Carter Beats the Devil, my impression, two-thirds of the way through, was that Glen David Gold had read Kavalier and Clay, exclaimed "I want to write that book!," and then took a stab at doing so. As Carter was published only one month after K&C this could hardly be the case, but that didn't stop me from thinking that this was a Solaris to Michael Chebon's 2001. Although it evoked the same general atmosphere as K&C, it seemed somewhat thinner and less authentic. By page 400 my main complaint was that, while the plot was engaging, the world and people were a bit two-dimensional.

But the advantage to using slightly abstracted characters is that you can put them in larger-than-life situations and still pull it off. This is what allows Gold to give his novel what both Solaris and K&C lacked: a rollicking, action-packed finale. The final 150 pages of Carter were spectacular, and so cinematic that, while reading it, I was already eagerly anticipating the movie which will inevitably be based on this work. [Google says ... well, nothing on IMDB.com, yet, but I did find this.]

If you've never read either Carter Beats the Devil or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the latter gets the nod. And if you've read K&C recently you might want to wait a spell before digging into this one -- they are similar enough in tone that you would be plagued by literary deja vu. But if you enjoyed Kavalier and Clay when it first came out and are looking for something in a similar vein, Carter Beats the Devil is as fine a read as you're likely to find.

Posted on December 17, 2002 to Books





Comments

i'm looking forward to reading Carter Beats the Devil soonish (in part because some magician friends of mine used the same poster on the cover for a show, and because they know Carter's history). having also read K and C, i wanted to mention Millroy the Magician, by Paul Theroux. thouroughly wierd novel, also taking direction from the magic community. available as paperback or at the local library, and worth at least a gander.

Posted by: beth on December 17, 2002 6:25 PM

Matthew--Did we speak about Kavalier and Clay when we were adequately proximate to be able to speak about such things? I can't remember. Nevertheless, I also thought it was the best thing I read in 2002, though I think I may have actually read it in 2001; nonetheless, I will wait at least a half-spell before opening CBtD. No kidding though, K&C was the best-written novel I'd read in several years. It's a quantum leap from Chabon's earlier work.

Also, those keeping score might be interested in the fact that Glen David Gold is married to Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, one of the few books to garner Oprah-like luv--and sales, et cetera--without the benefit of said Oprah during the past year. Dear Lord I can't explaion why, but I despise those dual-writer households....

Posted by: jerry on December 17, 2002 11:36 PM

FYI, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL was optioned by Tom Cruise's company, Cruise/Wagner back in February. Robert Towne is attached in some way, although it is not clear if he is directing or writing the script, or whatever.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Posted by: Tucker on December 30, 2002 10:15 PM