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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Monday, October 15th, 2001


 

Carter Beats the Devil

by Glen David Gold

A review by C. P. Farley

Carter the Great was a prominent stage magician during the final decades of vaudeville, an era now known as the Golden Age of Magic. In the early part of the twentieth century, Carter, along with such prominent magicians as Houdini and Thurston, enjoyed a level of fame that would later be reserved for the stars of film and television. Glen David Gold's debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, is a fictional account of Carter's colorful life and a reverent, well-researched portrait of vaudeville in the Jazz Age.

As a portrait of an era, Carter Beats the Devil succeeds brilliantly. But this is not a history, it's a novel, and Gold is clearly aware of his duties as a novelist. Unfortunately, he does not prove equal to his literary ambitions.

It's true that Carter Beats the Devil has many of the elements of a great novel. Gold's dialogue is often superb. And the cast of characters he has created to deliver it is truly memorable. If and when there is a movie, one imagines Hollywood's best character actors fighting tooth and nail for such parts as Mysterioso, Carter's wicked arch nemesis whose murder weapon of choice is a razor-sharp deck of cards; Annabelle, the winsome pugilist who would just as soon give a man a black eye as the time of day; and Griffin, the bumbling Secret Service agent who has already failed to prevent the deaths of two presidents.

But witty dialogue and quirky characters do not elevate entertainment to the level of literature. In an effort to give the novel depth, Gold explores Charles Carter's private life: his loves, losses, desires, and so forth. Sadly, Charles Carter the man is a bland counterpoint to Carter the magician. It quickly becomes clear that Gold is excellent at creating two-dimensional supporting characters, but he is not able to breathe life into a fully dimensional human being. I suspect other readers will be tempted, as I was, to skip over the chapters describing Carter's tedious ennui after his first wife's death, and will groan aloud, as I did, when he rediscovers that what makes life worth living is, you guessed it, Love.

This is a pity, for Carter Beats the Devil promises so much. In the end, Gold's novel is like the magician who devises elaborate sets, adorns himself in exotic costumes, and engages his audience with witty banter all to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The audience's natural reaction is, that's it?


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