Saturday, March 24, 2012

He's a Magic Man, Mama

      The magician stood alone in the shadows backstage. Short,stocky, and middle-aged, he parted his dark shock of wiry gray-flecked hair straight down the middle. A surprising number of men still sported this Gay Nineties barbershop quartet look at the start of the Jazz Age, the brave new tommy gun decade when flappers and bathtub gin became as American as apple pie and the G.A.R.
      Despite impeccable tailoring, the magician’s evening clothes looked perpetually rumpled. He had never been known as a fashion plate. When just a teenager first starting out, he wore suits several sizes too large, like a kid in hand-me-downs. Perhaps this was deliberate, a misdirection worthy of a master in the arts of deception. Watching him, one never suspected the starched dickey and wrinkled soup and fish concealed an athlete’s body honed by years of diligent exercise.

      It was not his nature ever to be idle. Waiting in the wings before his turn, listening to the house orchestra play an Irving Berlin medley, he kept his hands busy with a pair of lucky silver half-dollars. He rolled them from knuckle to knuckle across the backs of his hands, a flourish as difficult as any known in magic. The coins moved with delusive ease, round and round, propelled by an imperceptible flexing of his tendons. His eyes slid shut. His head slumped forward. He looked like a man in a trance, the rotating coins part of the deepest meditation.
      The magician was the headliner, the most famous name on the big-time vaudeville circuit, topping the bill at the Palace, one thousand, eight-hundred simoleons a week for two shows a day. He listened to the applause surging and crashing beyond the footlights like storm-driven surf. The orchestra’s string section trembled on the last notes of “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” as if overwhelmed by the frenzied clapping.

Those are the opening lines of William Hjortsberg's novel Nevermore and the magician is, of course, Harry Houdini.  Today marks the great prestidigitator's birthday.  He would have been an impressive 138 years old if he'd been able to escape the fate of that burst appendix in 1926.  It's a sad twist that the man who freed himself from straitjackets, handcuffs, water-filled milk cans, and riveted boilers couldn't wriggle away from the biological failures of his own body.

Nevermore catches Houdini three years before his death and it's a vibrant portrait of a magician in the twilight of his career.  Over the course of the story, he'll be joined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as together they try to track down a serial killer modeling his crimes on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Publishers Weekly called the 1994 novel a "droll and captivating fantasy--part gothic mystery, part Who's Who of the Jazz Age, part Perils of Pauline--reads like a collaboration between Mary Roberts Rinehart and Dorothy Parker."  For those readers with e-devices, Nevermore is now available from Open Road Media, which also has several other Hjortsberg titles available--check out his author page here.  I haven't had time to read all of Nevermore, but that first chapter is a dazzler.  It ends with Houdini's famous trick dubbed "The Needles."  Before he steps onto the stage, he slips a silk packet, manufactured by Martinka and Co. and "smaller than half a stick of gum," into his mouth.
      A request was made for a volunteer from the audience and Iris ushered a portly gentleman with a golden Shriner's crescent dangling from his watch chain onto the stage. Houdini bantered with the man, breaking the ice by asking his name and where he lived, making him feel at ease. He showed Mr. Elmer Conklin, of 809 Lexington Avenue, a paper of sewing needles and a small spool of thread. "Are these anything other than common everyday items which might readily be purchased at the five-and-dime?"
      "They are not, sir." Mr. Conklin nervously handed them back, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his blue serge vest.
      "Observe carefully. Houdini swallows them." Mr. Conklin watched, amazement overcoming his stage fright, as the magician mouthed the needles and thread. Back in the summer of '95, when Houdini and his wife had toured with the Welsh Brothers Circus, an old Japanese acrobat had taught him to regurgitate at will. So blase he often fell asleep while performing as the bottom man of a balance-pole act, Sam Kitchi was a swallower, ingesting ivory balls, coins, watches, and once, to the amazement of the young magician, a live mouse. Houdini practiced for weeks with a peeled potato tied to a string, strengthening his throat muscles, perfecting the art of retroperistalsis.
      The magician focused his raptor's stare on a bewildered Elmer Conklin, swallowing in quick succession the needles and thread, followed by the packet from Martinka's. Gripping them halfway down his esophagus, Houdini invited the volunteer to examine his mouth with a flashlight provided by Iris.
      "Glad I'm not a dentist," the stout man stammered, unwittingly getting a good laugh as he peered at the magician's molars. "Folks, there's not a thing in there I can see....Talking about under his tongue and everything. I'm satisfied his mouth is empty."
      Iris took back the flashlight. Wilma handed Houdini a brimming glass of water. "Hot work always makes me thirsty," the magician quipped, drinking down the liquid without apparent difficulty. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you and Mr. Conklin have just seen me swallow a needlebook and a spool of thread. I return them to you...thusly..."
      Houdini regurgitated the gag from Martinka's. The needles and thread remained clenched in his throat. He plucked at the end of his tongue, pulling a single thread from his mouth. Threaded needles dangled every inch or so, a lethal silver fringe glittering in the spotlight. Houdini's arm extended full length, prompting wild applause from the astonished audience.
      Iris took hold of the thread and backed away from the magician, suspended needles unspooling continuously from his mouth as she gracefully crossed the stage. Houdini basked in the ovation. The cheers surged through him, more powerful than the transports of love. Iris held her slender arm high in the air, pinching the end of a fifty-foot catenary curving back to the magician's open mouth. All along its length, hundreds and hundreds of needles winked and gleamed, flashing reflected light like fangs in the savage, ghostly smile of an invisible monster.

1 comment: