FROM FRANZ KAFKA'S "The Hunger Artist" to Thomas Mann's "Mario and the Magician" the literature of the circus seems to be filled with malevolence and political foreboding. Those continentals have long been a gloomy lot; it's not too long a path from the murderous clown of Pagliacci to the abusive strongman of La Strada. But then the American circus hasn't always been a site of pure mirth, either. Todd Browning's Freaks doesn't exactly have a happy ending, nor does Steven Milhauser's rather harrowing "The Knife Thrower," and the real-life murder of the truculent freak-show performer the Lobster Boy is only matched in familial dysfunction by Katherine Dunn's classic Geek Love.
Yet the good old U.S.A. has a cheerier tradition of presenting the carnival performer as a kind of trickster, a figure who floats from city to city and year to year, mirroring the changes in the landscape outside the big top. Such is the case with Paul Auster's Mr. Vertigo and the new debut novel of Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil. Here, the hero isn't wasting away in a cage while refusing to allow a morsel to pass through his lips. Nor is he alluding to the seductive hypnotism of Italian fascism. Instead, Gold's main character Charles Carter the Great acts as a catalyst at the edge of American history, setting off an improbable sequence of events that turns into a wonderful tall tale.
Carter, a historical personage who lived from 1874 to 1936 was a teenage magic prodigy turned illusionist--somewhere beneath Houdini in popularity and box-office appeal. Gold gives this biography a vigorous revival, neatly embroidering it with intrigue, romance, and political scandal. The story opens as Carter invites President Warren Harding onstage to assist in a dramatic illusion involving cards, gunfire, and a scimitar fight with the devil. The President literally falls to pieces, and Carter, with a dramatic flourish, reassembles him. All is well until the President dies of unknown causes a few hours later.
In the vaudeville tradition Gold seems to revere, the narration jumps breathlessly from sideshow to sideshow. In one subplot, Agent Griffen, the older Secret Service man charged with watching over Carter after Harding's death, relates his history of rotten luck and fluke turns of fortune. The agent's fall from grace and attempt at redemption follows the trajectory of the classic American schlemiel. In another facet of the story, Carter saves a damsel in distress. She's hardly a shrinking violet, though, as she actually makes her living by beating up men in a show run by Carter's rival, Mysterioso.
Gold sifts through history with a practiced hand, finding magic in breakthrough inventions such as telephones, cars, and gramophones. The novel hinges on an invention by a 17-year-old genius from Iowa, Philo T. Farnsworth. Both Carter and the U.S. government are bent on acquiring Farnsworth's latest creation, "a perfectly round, milk colored, four-inch piece of glass" that changes "from a milky white to an electric blue, a dozen parallel strands of electric blue with thin royal blue strips between."
Where gloomier circus tales center on the act of deception and the lurid spectacle of self-debasement, Gold seems more interested in the transformational potential behind illusions--the way the individual, or a whole country, can redefine itself. In this quest, Farnsworth and Carter have much in common with Carter's assistant Ledocq, a Belgian who helps Carter construct his magic. Ledocq, says Carter admiringly, is a "bona-fide genius in that he made simplicity out of the complicated." When asked whether he is the sole creator of the illusions he performs, Carter replies, "I didn't invent sugar or flour, but I make a mean apple pie." Carter's quip seems to reflect Gold's mindset, as well. Good fiction, like magic, can make things appear and disappear, providing audiences with an entertaining respite from the world.