The artfulness of 'Carter Beats the Devil' rests both in Gold's ability to unfurl a story before our eyes and in his crackerjack skill at recapturing a lost era. Gold takes us from Charles Carter's first magic show (performed for a household servant during the great San Francisco blizzard of 1897, when 9-year-old Charles and his younger brother James find themselves snowbound in their home with no parental supervision) to a thrilling conclusion, set in 1923, in which Carter delivers the greatest performance of his life … Gold's smartest feat may be the way, page by page, he fleshes out the character of Carter. Remote, mysterious and preternaturally lonely, Carter is the toughest kind of character for a writer to get a handle on...By the end of the book, Carter, a man who lives his life in the shadow of illusion, is nothing less than vivid and perfectly rounded to us.
Materializing out of nowhere with a flash and a puff of smoke, it is one of the most entertaining appearing acts of recent years … Glen David Gold's fearless embroidery of history continues for the balance of his five-hundred-page novel: President Harding's special guest appearance is only the first in a string of cameos that includes the Marx Brothers (not quite ready for prime time, they appear in the comedy sketch ‘Fun in Hi Skule’) and the Great Houdini himself. With its blend of actual figures and improbable conspiracies, the book is a younger cousin of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime—a hyperactive younger cousin, running off at the mouth and happily out of control.
Gold's real aim is to recapture the lost era of the great illusionists and escapologists, of Houdini, Thurston and Devant, to evoke the time when audiences believed what they saw; a time when real magic was somehow possible and its prime purveyors were among the most famous people on earth. And his plot — garish, crude, infernally clever — is precisely honed to the task: it is a triumph of misdirection, a nest of boxes constantly springing fresh surprises … This is the most exuberant stew of a novel: strange, tasty, addictive. Do we ever know its central protagonist, the man who called himself Carter the Great? No, not quite; but then, he was a man of mystery when two dollars bought you an evening of miracles.
In the tradition of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Gold weaves the rich history of this period through his own stagecraft, creating a novel worthy of the hype that announced those great Vaudeville magicians. This was, after all, a time of perpetual gasping at new scientific and consumer miracles … In a book full of conjurers, Gold emerges as the best magician of all, pulling surprises out of his hat throughout this wildly entertaining story, which captures America in a moment of change and wonder. The third and final act alone is worth the price of admission, but I'd rather face the devil himself than reveal any details about that part of the show.
Gold stacks the first chapter of Carter Beats the Devil with such a profusion of quirky characters, coy historical references and red herrings that the story comes near to exploding in his face from an excess of cleverness … Gold redeems himself in the subsequent chapters of this often elegantly written book. He spins a fascinating story, beginning with Carter's childhood encounter with the demanding and frightening world of magic … Gold does himself no favors by playing fast and loose with much of the history in Carter Beats the Devil. While the convention in other fiction of this sort has been to set a fictional narrative against a historically accurate backdrop, Gold mixes well-researched tidbits about magicians of the period with jarringly anachronistic elements.
Gold skillfully brings the reader onstage during a magician's performance, but, like a seasoned conjurer, never reveals how the tricks are done, dazzling instead with descriptions of the feats themselves. Magicians at the time were as much technicians as skilled performers, and Gold gives tantalizing glimpses of the complex mechanisms that Carter uses in his extravaganza. Gold's story is even more astonishing because Carter himself is a historical figure … Carter Beats the Devil is a wondrous work. From its bravura beginning to its riveting climax, Gold's novel defies the reader to perform the trick of putting the book down.
It’s very clear that the author himself is enchanted by the history of magic. He often uses historical data to set a scene to wonderful effect, describing in detail, for example, the strange and elaborate mechanisms magicians used to make bodies disappear and devils fly. But too often Gold lets his research become his tale when it should simply inform it; storytelling and character development grind to a halt under the weight of all that imparted knowledge … A wildly ambitious performance from a first-novelist who has all the tricks in his bag—but just doesn’t know how to use them yet.
Set against the backdrop of early 20th-century San Francisco during the heyday of such legendary illusionists and escape artists as Harry Houdini, this thoroughly entertaining debut by an amateur magician with an M.F.A. in creative writing is a fanciful pastiche of history, fantasy and romance … As it unfolds as both mystery and historical romance, readers, long before the denouement, will be torn between the pull of the suspense and wanting the epic to go on forever.