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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