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Magical memoir unveils unknown illusionist’s life

POSTED: May 22, 2011 1:30 a.m.

When was your first time that you witnessed magic?

As a child, you may have been taken to a circus or a magic show, or had a birthday party entertainer demonstrate sleight-of-hand illusions that captivated your young imagination.

Somewhere along the way to adulthood, we push magic out of our lives, as rigid logic tells us that every magic trick is just that — a trick, accomplished by tangible apparatus or misdirection of our attention.

Yet we never forget when magic was something whimsical and mystifying, and for anyone who looks back on prestidigitation with fondness, then you’ll enjoy Jim Steinmeyer’s ode to one particular real-life American "wizard" in his novel, "The Last Greatest Magician in the World."

"The Last Greatest Magician" teleports readers back to the turn of the 20th century, a time when vaudeville was slowly bowing out to new, more sophisticated forms of spectacle.

We receive a detailed look into the world of stage magic, and how magicians struggled to bring their performances to new heights, evolving their profession from the typical card-flipping camp to awe-inspiring feats of fantasy and grandeur. Steinmeyer’s belief is that there was one master of magic during the early 1900s that was truly the "greatest magician" in America, and it was not the one that normally comes to mind — most likely, the name Harry Houdini is the only one that anyone would recognize from that era nowadays.

This story, while it does tie in the exploits of Houdini and his famous escape artistry, is about Howard Thurston, a man with a classic rags-to-riches (although most often in debt due to the costs of his magic acts) background.

Thurston’s tale portrays his personal life of family adversities and broken marriages, his professional life of constant competitors and theatrical politics, and his ever-changing repertoire of magic that carried him all around the world, from England to China to India.

While he was not trying to establish the kind of enduring legacy that Houdini was driven to achieve, Thurston was determined to be at the top of his trade, and to leave a lingering spell on audiences for decades after his final bow.

The more interesting aspects of the story have to do with Thurston’s dealings with his fellow magicians, family members and critics, which is handled well in the first half of the book. But as the book goes on, it focuses more on how many of Thurston’s illusions were accomplished (which I found ironic for a novel about magic, where the rule of thumb is not to reveal its secrets), his financial woes, and Thurston’s array of entertainment ventures outside of his magic act, which usually flopped.

Here the novel begins to get drier and veers away from the charisma and engaging storytelling that was present earlier on.

Steinmeyer emphasizes on Thurston’s stage presence and showmanship that was so superior to performers like Houdini; the anecdotal moments of Howard’s clever interactions with his audience (particularly children) provide some good humor and insight into Thurston’s personality — at least his stage one.

It was when these moments were cut short and a snippet about something more technical to Thurston’s show was sliced in that made me feel like the pacing dragged.

Perhaps the problem is that this book presents itself much like a magic act in its own right — the fun, lighthearted bits of Thurston’s magic and the deceptions he wove engages the reader more than seeing the mechanics of the illusions exposed.

"Last Greatest Magician" is still an entertaining piece of American history, reminding us how a person’s name may become lost to time, yet the dreamlike wonder that person created can still spellbind us for centuries to come.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it.



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