After two weeks spent with Glen David Gold’s 2001 novel Carter Beats the Devil (one of them putting it off, or slowly turning a page or two, then putting the book down in favor of something more exciting), I finished the book at 5:00 p.m. tonight, and then took a nap until 5:45 p.m. During that time, I dreamt of magic. The dreams weren’t necessarily of Carter and the endless list of characters that accompany him during his misadventures; however, it was clear that Gold had charted the course for my afternoon slumber.
The book opens on Friday, August 3rd, 1923, the day after Carter the Great (a name bestowed by none other than Houdini) invited President Warren G. Harding on stage to participate in a daring, ghastly act called Carter Beats the Devil. In this act the President is decimated and fed to a lion, then reappears and is whole again. Following this performance, the President, alive and well, returns to his hotel room, eats a late dinner, and then promptly dies. Carter, being a magician, and the last person seen to enact terrible things upon the president, is the main suspect in the death of President Harding.
Although the mystery of how the President died is chief among the litany of tales that comprise Carter Beats the Devil, it is by no means the only one. The novel (a historical mystery-thriller) follows Carter during his first encounters with magic, fear, love, loss, understanding, and rivalry. Pleasantly, because the novel is historically accurate for the most part, everything really gets tied up pretty well.
Within the 662 pages of his book, Glen David Gold pulls off two amazing feats. First, he presents the reader with an unbelievable amount of information—most of it true. In an interview with IndieBound’s Gavin J. Grant, Gold explained that most of his research was done through magazines and newspapers from the early 20th century. Most of the tricks in the book, he says, have either actually been performed, or were taken from the unpublished notes of magicians who just didn’t have the money to perform the tricks. Knowing that much of the book is factual—even Charles Carter was a real person—changes, for me at least, one’s understanding of the book.
Second, although the writing is at times a bit dry, and the stories a bit scattershot, when Glen David Gold gets going (the book has about six really excellent peaks like this), his writing is warm, captivating, and poetic. One of my favorite lines comes during a time in the book after a lot of action has happened, and Carter is in the wake of a terrible sadness: “Meanwhile, his astral body floated in the clouds overhead, sending back occasional faint whispers of pain along the silver cord connected to his earthly body, which moved, and smiled, and conjured.”
At times while reading I became a mildly frustrated with the slow pacing and chalky story. At these moments I found myself grumpily thinking that the era Glen David Gold is writing about—with all its magic, mystery, spiritualism, and spotty science—was simply concocted for an interesting story. I was wrong. At the time I didn’t know that most of the events in the book had actually happened. Now that I know, I’m impressed with Gold’s writing. It’s hard, I think, to take historical events and breathe life into them again without bloating them past recognition.
As a final note I’d like to add this: I see now that the times we are living in now have strayed so far from the time in which Charles Carter was alive. Gold is writing about the preamble to Google, e-mail, and the ability to know—not just to know, but to know immediately. Sitting through the book was not difficult or frustrating because of Gold, or Carter. Realizing that, I’d like to read it again.