BOOK

Do You Believe in Magic?

by Daniel Asa Rose
Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind
By Alex Stone
Harper, 320 pages, $26.99
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Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind

You don’t even have to be terribly interested in the subject of magic to find Stone’s factoids irresistible, as for example this one: that historically, when long fingers proved a hindrance in executing certain maneuvers, some early magicians would amputate their fingertips. Or this: that at today’s magic shows you can distinguish other magicians in the audience because instead of applauding at the end of the trick, as laypeople do, they “clap during the seemingly uneventful moments when the secret moves occur. To the untrained eye, it’s as if the magicians are clapping at nothing.”

The deeper Stone becomes obsessed, the more riveting his account is. By the end of the book, he’s become a full-fl edged “magicaholic” with a pack-a-day habit (he likes his playing cards crisp), winging to magic conventions all over the world (there are more than a hundred such each year), even trying to inveigle himself into the good graces of a rough gang of three-card monte players on Canal Street (where they’ve relocated since being chased from Times Square by Giuliani’s cleanup). He’s lost his girlfriend — magic, it seems, has a way not of conjuring women, as he had hoped, but of making them disappear — and when he socializes it’s mostly to beta-test his material on friends. Magic has become a form of digital meditation for him, both his physics and his yoga.

Oh, and he’s become good enough to penetrate an inflated balloon with a cell phone, change the color of his shirt, produce salt in an endless stream from his hand, change a lemon into an egg, and make that vanish on command. He says that if he wanted, he could have become the ultimate shoplifter. He also says he’s more proud of his ability to launch a coin eight inches vertically from his palm than he is for having graduated from Columbia.

But it was the atmosphere of the grimy pizza parlor near Herald Square that had me hooked beyond reckoning. Rustico II on West 35th Street is the perfectly ordinary site where extraordinary advice gets parceled out to Stone by his grizzled mentor who hangs there — advice like not flaunting your skill lest the audience attribute what they’re seeing to manual dexterity instead of magic. “Magic is not about selling your prowess,” he hollers at Stone above the din of Midtown regulars ordering pepperoni. “It’s about the effect you create — a profound violation of the natural laws of the universe. I don’t want them to think I’m skillful. I’m a magician, not a juggler.”

This is the kind of statement that may elicit a gasp of wonder from you. You’ll want to see for yourself where such wisdom gets transmitted. Is it a spell taking control of your limbs and propelling you crosstown — some sort of posthypnotic command? Or just evidence of what real-life magic can do — the magic of good writing.


Daniel Asa Rose is the author of Larry’s Kidney, named a best book of 2009 by Publishers Weekly.

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