Extending Magic Beyond Credibility
An unpublished review from September 2001
Magic Beyond Credibility
Did you ever notice that there are those occasional celebrities in the world of show business who seem to have always been there, but no one is actually quite certain of why? Zsa Zsa Gabor, for instance …
Well, perhaps that overstates my feelings about John Booth, but then again, perhaps not by much. I realize the consensus reality has it that anyone who’s written this many books and that many columns for those many years must be doing something right, but it’s not ever been clear to me that that “something” extends beyond effective self-promotion. But who am I to dispute the platitudes and latitude afforded Mr. Booth?
Oh, I remember now. I’m the book reviewer. And so: On with it.
I’ll be brief, because this little pint of fluff doesn’t merit much more. Most of this book – allegedly (blessedly?) threatened to be Mr. Booth’s last – is compiled from his millions (whatever) of Linking Ring columns, and for some that may be a good idea, but not for me. I don’t get the magazine in the first place, and this book doesn’t make me miss it. It’s one thing to leak out this kind of slender musing and muttering for 36+ years of monthly columns, but sticking it between hard covers as if someone would want to pull it down and read it again is a very different thing. Much of his meandering here consists of personalized musings or accounts of performances he’s seen and people he’s met that, frankly, I don’t find terribly compelling. I breezed through the book because there’s not much to bite down hard on – it seems like eating cotton candy, just not as much fun.
Most of what’s here is harmless, of course, consisting of exceedingly bland if occasionally egocentric prose, assembled in the author’s typical pastiche style – a polite way of saying that these books don’t really seem to be about much of anything, much less do they possess any kind of reason or structure to their conception. The strongest material here is when the author bears down as a researcher, and this has always been his greatest strength. He may not have much insight to add, but he is good at digging up facts, and on those occasions when he can see his way clear to stepping out the way of those facts, the material can be interesting. Thus his best work comprises those pieces about “Houdini’s Hollywood Estate;” the use of birds in conjuring; Howard Thurston’s music; and Robert-Houdin’s legendary use of the Light and Heavy Chest. I suppose that is something, but having had to read the entire book, I have to say it seemed a long way to get there.
Far less interesting are a silly short story about a magician called into service by his government; or the weak tea of a piece about Malini that is all rehash save for the anecdote of the author’s having met the little man; the piece is unkind as the author feels compelled to offer us his patronizing music criticism of Malini’s doubtless poor violin playing, but reading the likes of John Booth chastising Max Malini for his musical endeavors is akin to birthday party clown criticizing Lance Burton’s skill at making a balloon animal.
Less interesting still is the author’s apparently requisite hagiography of Howard Thurston; ever concerned with “status,” of his own as well as others (see the four-page “about the author” in the back of the book!), he actually begins this piece by talking, with a straight face, about the methods of “calculating the relative status among artists.” The word “twit” comes to mind. Shameless to a fault, the author never read a compliment about himself from which he would demur, much less avoid reprinting; can you imagine including this phrase about yourself, even when written by another, in your own book: “His very presence on stage filled the room with excitement. John with his compelling personality, took command immediately … “ What a guy, huh?
Of course, I must admit that I read the piece, first delivered as a
“lecture” at the Collectors conference, about “Book
Reviews: The Achilles Heel of Magic Magazines.” The author takes
on three reviewers in three publications, including your humble servant,
whom he apparently feels is woefully unqualified for the task at which
you, Constant Reader, find me. In the course of this piece, naturally
nothing good about Howard Thurston can ever be bad, and anything bad
about Houdini can always be good – Mr. Booth is nothing if not
consistent. Once again, as always, he accuses anyone who offers much
positive about Houdini as being blinded by hero worship, ever blind
to his own outrageous biases. As is typical of spurned and chastised
authors, he insists that because I did not address every element of
his positively awful book, The Fine Art of Hocus Pocus, reviewed in
July 1996 Genii, therefore I could not have read it; I fear that I must
clarify this misconception on the author’s part, and explain that
while I read the entire book, including the “five chapters of
close-up and stage tricks,” I declined mentioning this material
as a kindness. As the saying goes, no good deed …etc. (I should
add that I don’t recall any of that material being any more mysterious
and impenetrable than the title of this book now at hand.) I must say,
however, that as to the author’s comment that “The selection
of book reviewers is too often conveniently based upon ‘Who will
do it?,’ not ‘Who should do it?,’” I can only
say that, indeed, the same must undoubtedly apply to the occasional
magazine columnist. Mustn’t it?