Nobody knows how Houdini performed some of his dazzling, death-defying tricks, and nobody knows, finally, why he felt compelled to punish and imprison himself over and over again. Tracking the restless Houdini’s wide-ranging exploits, acclaimed biographer Adam Begley asks the essential question: What kind of man was this?
In Houdini: The Elusive American...the biographer Adam Begley tries to say, with good-humored seriousness, what kind of man Houdini was, and what he represented. It is not an easy task. In the familiar style of American popular artists, Houdini refused all interpretation ... Begley...writes, a little sourly, 'Houdini was not interested in the meaning of his stunts, and in a sense they were meaningless. They accomplished nothing. They advanced no cause, proved no point. . . . He liberated only himself.' And yet Begley’s vivid account can’t help but invite us to see metaphor, and meaning.
In Houdini: The elusive American...Adam Begley is less starry-eyed about the 'peerless self-liberator' ... On the debate over Houdini’s hypocrisy with regard to spiritualism, Begley uses very similar phrasing to Posnanski but remains more neutral ... On the whole, Begley’s concise and conventional biography is also less interested in searching for significance. Houdini’s stunts 'accomplished nothing. They advanced no cause, proved no point” and were “in a sense … meaningless'. They fed the showman’s insatiable hunger for attention and kept crowds entertained almost as a side effect. And yet, despite concluding that 'the most useful verdicts are the simplest, verdicts that take Houdini at face value', Begley doesn’t refrain entirely from psychoanalytical overreach. We are told early on, for instance, that his father’s eventual failure to succeed in the New World triggered in Weisz 'the earliest stirring of his impulse to escape', and that the 5’4” showman (his exact height, like so many other details, is up for debate) 'affirmed his masculinity' through impossible jailbreaks in the nude.
Mr. Begley’s book is...brief, offering a brisk passage through the facts so far as they can be known. The accusation Houdini made against Robert-Houdin of 'utter disregard for the truth' applied to Houdini with a vengeance; he lied not merely as an act of self-promotion, which could be said about many showmen and performers of his time and our own, but also about things that really didn’t matter. Many writers before Silverman accepted these lies without challenging them, but both Mr. Begley and Mr. Posnanski...take pains to separate truth from myth ... Brevity has its rewards and its challenges. In Mr. Begley’s book, the necessity to get the basic facts of Houdini’s life into a compact series format leaves less space for the development of scenes than a reader might hope for, and also fewer opportunities to stand back from his subject and offer historical or cultural perspective. Flashes of Mr. Begley’s charm or wit...create a longing for more such moments.