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Monday, March 7, 2011

Carter Beats the Devil

Glen David Gold’s 2001 debut novel is an immense, immersive trip into the 1920s and the last days of vaudeville. The titular Carter is a successful performing magician (based on the real Charles J. Carter, aka “Carter the Great”) who, in the novel’s prologue, finds himself wrapped up in the speculation over the untimely death of President Warren G. Harding. You see, in Gold’s reimagining of history, Harding dies just hours after being brought on stage to participate in the mysterious third act of Carter’s show, Carter Beats the Devil.

As Gold’s novel goes from Carter’s early days in pre-20th century San Francisco through the aftermath of Harding’s death, he weaves in an astonishing number of real life people and events. (Indeed, perhaps proving the axioms about history and fiction, I only realized some of these were historical after having finished the book.) Aside from the President, real life multi-millionaire Francis Marion “Borax” Smith is a major character, as is BMW founder Max Friz. The Marx Brothers are in the same troupe as Carter, in the days before they changed their name. And most importantly, much of the plot surrounds the attempts by Carter, Smith, and other forces to get their hands on the invention of a young man from Idaho named Phil Farnsworth.

All this history is impressively weaved into the fictional story, and must have required diligent and time-consuming research. However, it does seem to have overwhelmed the prose and plotting of the novel. What there is of Gold’s story that is not borrowed from the history books sags as the book draws toward its conclusion. The novel is an easy read (despite its 650+ pages, I finished it in the course of a week, reading mostly during my commute) but ultimately a surprisingly forgettable one. None of the fictional characters are of the kind that stays with you after reading.

The fictionalized Carter goes through quite a lot, from childhood torment, to tragic loss, and a long road back to happiness. Yet if forced to describe his personality I would struggle for adjectives. After spending so many pages with a character I should think this was a problem.

Carter Beats the Devil is perhaps a good book for what it sets out to do, but it might not have its priorities entirely in order. You’ll marvel at the amount of detail, and its historical accuracy, but you might wish there were a little more fiction in this work of historical fiction.

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